Times Square is the heart of a tourism empire built on acting, so there's nothing inherently wrong with costumed characters wandering the streets in an attempt to make a buck entertaining out-of-towners.
But what happens when Spider-Man suddenly comes off more like a strong-arm shakedown artist than a hungry street actor scrambling for change? Cue the NYPD.
While a certain element of raffishness may be fine at the crossroads of the world, buskers who earn a living making tourists feel queasy and unsafe are not. The drama that erupted last weekend in Times Square is a case in point.
According to police: A uniformed cop sees a costumed Spider-Man taking a picture with a man and woman. The woman hands Spidey a dollar bill. Spidey says he only takes fives, tens or twenties. The cop approaches and tells the woman she can pay the character anything she wants.
Spider-Man, identified as Junior Bishop, 25, of Brooklyn, allegedly curses and slugs the cop. He's put in custody.
Score a victory for tourists and all New Yorkers. Even Mayor Bill de Blasio said Monday the problem must stop. Small wonder: The first impression of a place is often what sticks. And for many of our 54 million visitors a year, Times Square is their first taste of New York. Let too many tourists leave the city feeling creeped out by hostile behavior and a crucial part of our economy withers.
The challenge for NYPD Commissioner William Bratton is to enforce the law in a district where unsuspecting visitors roam and no one knows who's inside the costume.
The best course of action?
First the city should register masked street artists with visible IDs, so when a costumed perp flees, the cops know whom to find. IDs would also give companies holding the rights to these characters a way to keep bad actors out of their costumes.
Second the city should make sure plenty of discerning cops are always in Times Square -- watching the ebb and flow of tourists as they mix with costumed characters. Seeing and hearing an infraction go down is crucial. This is a problem we have to fix. It's not Mickey Mouse stuff.