1st Precinct's Top Cop: Arrests Not Enough to Stop Tour Ticket Sellers

Ticket sellers outside the Staten Island Ferry terminal. Many of them sell rides on a New York Water Tours boat that departs from nearby Pier 5 and sails past the Statue of Liberty but does not stop there. Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib

May. 02, 2017

The shooting near Battery Park last week that left two people wounded has led the 1st Precinct’s commanding officer to call for a crackdown on two tour boat operators whose bulk tickets he says are sold by aggressive and unscrupulous vendors.

“My goal is to get the city agencies to go after the two companies instead of me going after 100 [sellers], day in and day out, with no actual effect on the problem,” Dep. Inspector Mark Iocco told a meeting of the 1st Precinct’s Community Council last week.

Police say 37 ticket sellers have been arrested in and around the park this year. But Iocco insisted that the problem will not be solved until the two tour companies stop selling bulk tickets to intermediary companies who in turn recruit the street sellers.

He named the Queen of Hearts, which docks near Montgomery Street at Pier 36, and New York Water Tours at Pier 5, located just east of the Staten Island Ferry terminal.  

“Those boat companies would never sell tickets like this themselves,” Iocco said. “But they sell tickets in bulk and wash their hands.”

Neither company initially responded to requests for comment. On May 10, Peter Vuli, owner of the Queen of Hearts, called the Trib to say that most of his sellers work around the World Trade Center "with the cooperation of the police."

"We are not selling, God forbid, heroin. We are selling tickets to attractions that people want and we're generating revenue for the city," said Vuli, a Financial District restaurant owner who started his boat tour business last June. Through six intermediary companies who hire the sellers, he said, those workers "are earning their money legally rather than seeking the alternative. If the city can make this work it will benfit the people it should benefit."

The shooting on April 24 has ratcheted up concerns over the ubiquitous vendors who approach tourists non-stop during the day, from the Battery Maritime Building on the east to Pier A on the west, as well as on surrounding streets. They have long been accused of duping tourists, especially by selling tickets they claim will take them onto Liberty Island when, in fact, the boat only passes by. Only Statue Cruises provides access to the grounds of Liberty Island and Ellis Island.

But for nearby residents, it is the aggressiveness and potential for violence that is most worrisome.

“My children have seen fights break out, cell phones being thrown at one another, cursing,” said Liat Cohen-Reiss, who lives on Water Street. “I have a 10-year-old at P.S. 276 and I won’t let him walk home alone because of these people.”

More police were assigned to the area and arrests were made last year after a ticket seller punched a tourist in the face, resulting in a fractured skull when he fell. That incident and others led to city legislation requiring ticket sellers to be licensed through the Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA).

According to a City Hall source, the DCA is now in the process of revoking 89 licenses of ticket sellers that the agency says lied about their criminal record on their license applications, although a criminal record does not disqualify them for the license.

Iocco said the licensing has not been enough.

Arrested sellers are charged with misdemeanors, Iocco said, and they don't care about being arrested. Theyre out before you know it.

Many of the ticket sellers, Iocco said, are recent parolees with histories of violence. Jason Wright, the man accused in the shooting that police believe arose over an argument between vendors, served 10 years in prison for manslaughter and has a long criminal record, they said. He was arrested three days after the April 24 shooting, which grazed a 32-year-old female bystander in the leg and grazed a man, 40, in the chest. Police say the man was his intended victim. The investigation is said to be ongoing.

Iocco said it will take pressure from the community and city agencies to convince the boat operators to halt their bulk ticket sales. Another company stopped the practice last year after its role behind the selling became public and it was a target of the citys Department of Investigation.

“You guys should hammer them,” he told residents at the Community Council meeting, several of whom were there because of the shooting. “You guys should publicly shame them.”

The city has been “ramping up” enforcement on ticket sellers by revoking licenses and “closely reviewing” who gets them, a City Hall spokesman said in an email.

“We agree that more needs to be done and we will be working with the Council and stakeholders on possible solutions,” the spokesman said.

At a rally on Sunday held on Battery Place, near where the bystander was shot, Councilwoman Margaret Chin echoed Iocco’s call for accountability by the ferry companies, and also proposed the installation of a ticket kiosk in Battery Park. Currently, ticket selling is not allowed in the park. “We will raise it with the Parks Department to see if it’s a possibility,” she said.

“This is 2017. There is no reason we need aggressive ticket sellers walking around these areas,” added Patrick Kennell, a member of Community Board 1 and president of the Financial District Neighborhood Association. “They can sell them online, they can sell them in a centralized ticket kiosk and that will help everybody out in the city.”

Peter Vuli, the Queen of Hearts owner, said kiosks could be the answer to eliminating street sellers if the city "makes sure the [companies] are equally represented."

A spokesman for the Parks Department did not return a request for comment.

Chin also noted that NYC & Company, the city agency that promotes tourism, “should have some responsibility to help educate tourists, and make sure they shouldn’t be buying these tickets on the street.” A source in the Mayor’s Office said that such warnings were outside the purview of NYC & Company.

“It’s got to be a joint effort to bring everybody in,” Chin said. “Enough is enough. We’ve got to have some control.”