NEW YORK—Spider-Man is usually a figure of justice and a fighter of crime, but the July 26 assault of a police officer by a man dressed like the beloved superhero in Times Square was completely out of character. The incident and subsequent arrest, which were partially captured on amateur video, were just the latest in a string of reports of inappropriate behavior from the masked characters who patrol Midtown Manhattan and pose with tourists for photos.
“This incident is yet another reminder that many—though certainly not all—of these so-called friendly characters are actually violent and aggressive and have troubling criminal records,” said Tim Tompkins, president of the Times Square Alliance (TSA), in a recent statement.
Tompkins and his organization, which advocates for the benefit of the Times Square area and its merchants, are calling for a rigorous licensing scheme to address the problem.
According to a police report, the most recent arrest of one of the area’s characters, which include Sponge Bob, Minnie Mouse, Captain America, and a host of other superheroes and cartoon characters, started when an NYPD officer noticed a Spider-Man insisting on a larger tip after posing for a photo. The impersonator, Junior Bishop, 25, of Brooklyn punched the officer in the face after being told to stop hassling the tourists. The officer’s intervention led to Bishop’s arrest. He was charged with second-degree assault on a police officer, resisting arrest, criminal mischief, and disorderly conduct.
Though unlicensed and unregulated, the characters are allowed to work for tips but are not allowed to ask for specific amounts.
Unfortunately, this is not the first time that a costumed performer has been arrested for bad behavior. Over the past couple of years, performers dressed as Elmo, SuperMario, Spider-Man, and other characters have garnered negative attention for cursing, being overly aggressive and pushy, or even groping passersby. On July 31, Epoch Times reporters observed a robotic silver-painted character loudly threatening a man, stating he had already done 20 years in prison and did not want to go back.
The Times Square Alliance proposal, which has taken the form of a bill by New York City Council member Andy King, would ensure that each character can be easily identified. It could be a solution to the mayhem.
“We’re proposing a simple licensing and regulation scheme that would in essence provide for background checks so that we know that there’s no criminal activity with these costume characters, and identification badges so you can tell one Elmo from the next Elmo,” said Gina Storms, vice president of communications and external affairs for Times Square Alliance. “So that everybody who’s in Times Square really feels safe and they know that they are protected as a consumer and a visitor.”
“We’ve seen dozens and dozens of these negative incidents, and those are only the ones being reported. We know that there’s just going to be more if there’s not licensing put in place, which is absolutely why the City Council and the administration needs to act quickly and pass a licensing system so that we know who these guys are,” Storms emphasized.
King’s bill would try to achieve just that. Though this is an ongoing issue, officials have always had a hard time trying to curb the costumed performers’ activity because dressing up in a costume and walking around Times Square is allowed and protected under the First Amendment.
Currently the costume character industry is completely informal. Technically, anyone can put on a costume, pose for pictures, and earn a living from tips. Because there is no licensing system, it is difficult to tax these performers. The majority of them are immigrants and many are not fluent in English.
Despite the most recent Spider-Man incident, most of the costumed characters appeared to be friendly and warm toward tourists who venture over for a picture. Most tourists hand over the money willingly, and there didn’t appear to be any haggling involved. On a nice summer day, the performers can get a picture every five minutes.
Additional reporting by Brendon Fallon