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Times Square costumed characters testify on licensing plan

Keith Albahae, 48, of Crown Heights, dressed as

Keith Albahae, 48, of Crown Heights, dressed as the Joker, testifies at a City Council hearing on a proposal to regulate costumed characters in Times Square on Nov. 19, 2014 Credit: Newsday / Emily Ngo

Comic-book nemeses Batman and the Joker -- or rather, two men who dress as them -- took opposing sides Wednesday on a City Council bill to regulate costumed characters who have proliferated in tourist-packed Times Square.

Council members as well as tourism and immigration groups were also split on the legislation, proposed in response to altercations with both police officers and civilians by some of the performers, who expect tips when they pose for sightseer photos.

"There is a problem in Times Square, and it is mostly a behavioral problem," said Councilman Daniel Garodnick (D-Manhattan) at a hearing near City Hall, calling the aggressive panhandling by some of the performers "abhorrent."

The bill introduced by Councilman Andy King (D-Bronx) would require Elmo, Spider-Man and the other characters to undergo background checks and fingerprinting for licenses to panhandle, which would cost $175. It also would limit where they can operate.

Councilman Robert Cornegy (D-Brooklyn) called the plan "misguided" and said the characters are simply using "creativity and ingenuity to hustle."

Keith Albahae, 48, of Crown Heights, who wore face paint and a bat-patterned suit as the Joker, testified that he is harassed by tourists, not the other way around. He called the legislation "fascism."

In Batman garb was Jose Escalona-Martinez, 41, of Harlem, who testified in support of the bill. Though he has a case pending over a September assault arrest in Times Square, he said characters shouldn't be afraid of background checks, "if you don't have anything to hide."

Bill proponents said threatening behavior by performers includes following tourists who refuse to tip them or approaching them in groups. Police can issue summonses for aggressive solicitation, but say that when characters' faces are covered by masks. it makes it harder to ID them.

NYPD Insp. Edward Winski said 38 characters have been arrested since 2009 -- half of them this year and most charged with aggressive solicitation. Other charges have included assault.

Lucia Gomez, executive director of immigrant rights group La Fuente, said any background information collected on the characters in the licensing process could be used to deport those who are immigrants without documentation.

Tim Tompkins, president of the Times Square Alliance, which promotes tourism in the neighborhood, cited months of Twitter complaints about the costumed characters and called their operation a "consumer protection issue."

"Quirky is fine, but creepy is not," he said.

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