AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
New York City's Times Square. There are lots of lights, flashing signs, tourists and people wearing costumes. Spiderman, Batman, Elmo - those characters have come under fire recently after multiple reports of harassment. NPR's Sam Sanders has the story.
SAM SANDERS, BYLINE: Caped crusaders and cartoon characters have been times where for years, posing with tourists for pictures and tips. But recently, there's been some bad behavior.
ANDY KING: The Woody who is out there berating slurs. The Spiderman who was out there throwing blows. I had another Elmo who grabbed a woman's body. Those types of behaviors are just rude.
SANDERS: That's New York City Councilman Andy King. He failed to mention the dueling Statues of Liberty who got into a fist fight. These outbursts have City Council members consider regulations. And the New York Police Department just put up signs saying tips are optional. Yesterday Mickey and Minnie Mouse and Buzz Lightyear and several others pushed back. The characters held a press conference in Times Square. They even get themselves a name
LUCIA GOMEZ: New York City Artists United for a Smile.
SANDERS: That's Lucia Gomez, she's the executive director of La Fuente, a labor nonprofit working with the characters.
GOMEZ: They want to make sure that the image of who they are is what they project, versus what people want to project them and portray them as.
SANDERS: Gomez translated for several costume performers. They admitted that there are some bad apples, but they said they're working on their own code of conduct to prevent future dustups. They also alleged the NYPD is patrolling them too heavily.
VIRGILIA REYES: They basically stand on top of me. They go to the people and go - you don't have to pay them, they're nothing.
SANDERS: Virgilia Reyes says NYPD regularly harasses her. She dresses as a minion, one of those yellow characters from the "Despicable Me" movies.
REYES: They broke my costume once. My minion is ripped from the waste to the knee - it's ripped.
SANDERS: Reyes also says those signs that NYPD put up, saying tipping is optional, they've hurt.
REYES: Well, I used to make a good $65 a day. Now I've went down to 30 - 20. It's not enough for me to support me or my son. We're back on rent two months.
KING: Anybody who's dresses up in those characters should be out there for purpose of entertainment, not trying to make your rent, not trying to pay your child's tuition, because that's not the venue to do that.
SANDERS: Again, that's Andy King the New York City Councilman. He's working on licensing measure for the characters. City law already forbids street performers from demanding tips, but it does allow them to accept donations. King says that's not enough. The city also needs to know who's under those masks. There is some worry though about what licensing could do to some of the performers.
TIM TOMPKINS: Any licensing scheme should prohibit inquiries about anyone's immigration status.
SANDERS: Tim Tompkins is the president of the Times Square Alliance. He says a lot of the characters are recent immigrants and the alliance doesn't want the regulation to be used as immigration enforcement. But Tompkins says something has to be done, in part because there are more performers out now than ever before.
TOMPKINS: First there was just the Naked Cowboy, and we never had any issue with that. But what happened was it went from there being like, five or six of them to a about 80 of them. And then they started fighting with each other.
SANDERS: For all of the recent problems, the characters still get a lot of love.
LAUREN SUMMERS: I think they're amazing.
SANDERS: Lauren Summers is visiting Times Square from London. She took pictures with some of the characters after their press conference. Summer says they deserve their tips.
SUMMERS: People come over here from all over the world with so much money to spend in New York, so why not? Everyone's got a grind. You got to respect everyone's hustle, do you know what I mean?
SANDERS: The hustle may have to be respected, but for these Times Square characters, the hustle may have to be regulated as well. Sam Sanders, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.