For plainclothes cops in NY, why the focus on Times Square?

Authorities call the intersection 'one of the most complex environments in the world.' But a particular influx of topless women this summer has intensified police scrutiny and stepped up the call for patrol officers.

(Craig Ruttle/AP)
A costumed character walks past a New York Police Department officer in plain clothes on Wednesday in New York's Times Square. Concerned that Times Square is becoming less wholesome, the NYPD is assigning plainclothes officers to discourage aggressive panhandling in a tourist attraction that long ago rid itself of prostitutes and junkies.

Twenty years ago, Times Square was filled with pimps and prostitutes. This week, police have uncovered activity that may suggest they haven't yet entirely succeeded in creating a new image for this popular tourist destination.

Women decked out in thongs and patriotic-themed body paint – called desnudas, the Spanish word for naked – have become an attraction in the bustling intersection this summer as they offer to take pictures with tourists in exchange for tips.

Some work in pairs or with handlers, and can make up to $300 a day, reports The Associated Press.

As city politicians scramble to determine how to curb the effect of the desnudas on Times Square’s wholesome image, they have publicly lamented the fact that public toplessness and panhandling are not illegal in New York.

“The whole situation is a disaster I think for tourists and New Yorkers and the family friendly image,” Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer told The New York Daily News.

Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has called the women’s outfits inappropriate, announced a more aggressive approach in August, launching a multiagency task force led by Police Commissioner William Bratton and City Planning Commissioner Carl Weisbrod.

The police department plans to add 100 officers to its existing patrols in Times Square, as well as to increase camera surveillance and other counterterrorism measures, Commissioner Bratton said in August.

Because the women could technically be categorized as a business, the city has also considered regulations including designating a separate zone for their work, requiring them to obtain a license, and even removing the pedestrian plazas entirely.

“Let's face it, the women in Times Square, or the furry creatures in Times Square, are engaged in a business,” Mayor de Blasio told the Daily News. “We believe that that opens the door for us to enforce the way we would any other business.”

This week, police dressed in shorts, T-shirts, and backpacks to blend in with the crowd, watching for “hustlers who call themselves street entertainers,” reported the AP.

“It's a lot of waiting and watching,” said Inspector Joseph Dowling, one of the commanders leading the initiative. “And when there's criminal activity, guys pounce on it.”

It wasn’t long before one of the painted women, Destiny Romero, introduced undercover cops who were posing as tourists to her handler, Jason Perez. He offered to sell drugs to the officers and said Ms. Romero would be willing to have sex with them, according to The Wall Street Journal.

After the officers met the two at a hotel and performed the drug exchange, they arrested Mr. Perez and Romero.

Romero, who is 20 years old, was charged with three counts of criminal possession of a controlled substance and a single count of prostitution. Perez, who is 22, was charged with criminal sale of a controlled substance and unlawful possession of marijuana, said police.

That same night, police also arrested Mark Walters, a 46-year-old businessman from Charleston who allegedly assaulted another topless woman after accusing her of stealing his wallet.

Commissioner Bratton has emphasized the heightened risk of danger and criminal activity in Times Square, calling it "one of the most complex environments in the world.”

But now that police have busted one of the women, they say they don’t expect more trouble.

“They know the focus is on them, so they're behaving,” said Inspector Dowling.

This report contains material from The Associated Press.

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