In the summer of topless, painted women in Times Square, a team of New York Police Department officers fanned out on a recent night in their own getups — shorts, T-shirts and backpacks that allowed them to blend in with the crowd.
Two officers strolled through a pedestrian plaza past the seminude women and costumed characters trolling for tips from tourists. Others sat in a grandstand in Duffy Square. Another brushed past an unsuspecting Spider-Man.
By the end of the night, police had arrested one of the topless women on prostitution charges while in a separate incident, a South Carolina businessman was charged with assaulting another one of the women over a missing wallet — proof, New York Police Department officials say, of the potential for disorder related to Times Square's legion of hustlers who call themselves street entertainers.
The bustling mix of panhandlers, traffic, tourists and commerce — along with the threat of terrorism — makes Times Square "one of the most complex environments in the world," Police Commissioner William Bratton told The Associated Press. "The issue is how to keep it a safe and orderly place within the law."
Unlike two decades ago — a seedier era when junkies, hookers and bar fights still were facts of life — Times Square is one of the safest spots in the city. Still, police officials argue that the type of enforcement that led to the recent prostitution arrest is one of the measures needed to keep it that way.
Toplessness and non-intimidating panhandling are legal in New York. But that hasn't curbed outrage over aggressive costumed characters and so-called desnudas — women wearing thongs and covering themselves only with patriotic body paint — seeking tips in exchange for photos. Police say some of the desnudas work in pairs or with handlers, and can make up to $300 a day.
As the women became a tabloid sensation, the NYPD announced it was forming a new unit of about 100 officers to bolster existing patrols in Times Square. The decision is part of broader program that will include greater use of security cameras and other counterterrorism measures, Bratton said.
The department already has been responding to complaints about hustlers by using techniques familiar in drug investigations; it deploys undercovers, plainclothes surveillance teams and intelligence to detect and deter crime related to the panhandling.
"It's a lot of waiting and watching," Inspector Joseph Dowling, one of the commanders leading the initiative, said while touring Times Square. "And when there's criminal activity, guys pounce on it."
Much of the enforcement has focused on peddlers who aggressively hawk homemade music CDs.
"You can peacefully beg, you can peacefully ask for money, but what you can't do is intimidate people, block their path or hold onto them," said Lt. Daniel Albano of the NYPD Legal Affairs Bureau.
In the prostitution bust, two undercover officers posing as tourists approached desnuda Destiny Romero to take a picture with her. Phone numbers were exchanged with Romero and her handler, Jason Perez, and in a later phone call Perez offered to sell the undercovers drugs, police said.
The officers directed the suspects to a hotel, where Perez allegedly sold them cocaine and the synthetic drug "molly" for $200 and Romero offered to perform oral sex for another $200 before both were arrested, police said. There was no response to messages left seeking comment from defense attorneys.
Earlier that night, Mark Walters, 46, of Charleston, was arrested on charges he assaulted a topless woman after accusing her of being a pickpocket. In court, his lawyer complained that his client was the true victim.
Despite the arrests, police don't expect more trouble from the painted women.
Said Dowling: "They know the focus is on them, so they're behaving."