Ten years ago, according to a Tribune story, the Mesa Police Department and City Council worked together in “drafting a new ordinance that would boost regulation on massage businesses to discourage establishments from operating as fronts for prostitution and other illicit activity.”
“There’s no doubt that in Mesa, we have something that’s out of balance,” then-Mayor Scott Smith said in fall 2011.
Last week, City Council and the police revisited the issue, first at a study session, then in the discussion of “a new Chapter 12 entitled Massage and Bodywork Establishment Operations governing the licensing of massage establishments and bodywork establishments.”
The new ordinance “is scheduled for a vote at the next meeting Sept. 13,” said city spokesman Kevin Christopher. If approved, it would take effect 30 days later.
Assistant Police Chief Lee Rankin stressed the new wording was needed to keep up with similar ordinances in neighboring cities.
His presentation in a study session listed the number of “illicit massage businesses” in nearby cities, with Phoenix having 44, Chandler 21, Tempe 12, Gilbert 13 and Scottsdale, 27.
Rankin said that of 143 massage establishments in Mesa, “63 establishments are marked ‘active’ and ‘erotic.’”
Councilman David Luna said he was asking an obvious question: “Why can’t we just shut them down?”
Rankin responded that police monitor certain social media sites that feature establishments advertising for sexual services.
“The burden still lies upon us as a law enforcement agency to prove this illicit activity is occurring. Although on line people are talking very explicitly about sex acts that are occurring, we still have to prove they are occurring,” Rankin said.
The Tribune asked the police department to explain this further.
Sgt. Charles Trapani said that, after using social media to identify suspect sites, “The Mesa Police Department is conducting follow-up investigations at these locations to where we can verify and confirm that illicit activity is actually occurring there. If it is and probable cause is developed then at that point law enforcement action can be taken.”
The new language allows for “surprise” visits at any massage establishment, whether or not police suspect illegal activity.
According to the ordinance Council passed, “A licensee shall permit representatives of the Police Department and Mesa City code enforcement and any other federal, state, county, or local agency … to inspect the premises of a massage establishment or bodywork establishment for the purpose of ensuring compliance with the law, at any time it is lawfully occupied or open for business.”
While much of that language was already in place, the new version deletes the following:
“Inspection of rooms occupied by a patron shall not commence until the patron has been given reasonable opportunity to dress, gather his or her personal effects, and exit the room.”
As such, the new ordinance allows police immediate access to all massage rooms.
Stings, new and old
In 2011, the Tribune reported on a month-long “crackdown against massage parlors in Mesa has resulted in 20 prostitution arrests and discovered 43 establishments violated state or local laws.”
According to data on its website, Mesa PD made 180 arrests for prostitution in the last five years. That data shows only four arrests this year.
However, according to a police press release, “the East Valley Human Trafficking Task Force hosted a ‘Buyer Reduction’ operation on Aug. 5 and 6 on South Country Club Drive and the US 60 in Mesa and “eighteen arrests were made over the two days for adult prostitution.”
During the study session three weeks later, Rankin stressed the police would like to go after not just individual prostitutes, but illicit massage parlor operators.
He said the new language “requires that no manager, landlord or property owner of a massage establishment or bodywork establishment occupant knowingly permit or negligently fail to take reasonable actions to prevent criminal activity from occurring.”
Mayor John Giles noted, “We are broadening the ordinance but also broadening the liability…owners and landlords are at serious risk if they turn a blind eye to what’s going on in these establishments.”
Kathleen Winn, director of the anti-human trafficking organization Project 25, praised Councilman Kevin Thompson for leading the new ordinance.
Winn is a member of the Maricopa County Community College District who unsuccessfully ran for Mesa City Council in 2016.
“As someone who fights against sex trafficking and sexual exploitation, Mesa is taking a giant step. We are taking one of the most aggressive ordinances in the state. I don’t believe anyone in the state has anything quite like what we’re doing,” Winn said.
“I can’t underscore enough how much this will help our law enforcement.”
Part of the new ordinance states “the Police Department, on behalf of the Licensing Office, will receive and review the criminal history record information resulting from the criminal records check set forth above, including conviction and non-conviction data, of license applicants.”
Licenses will be denied if applicants have felony or misdemeanor convictions within the last 10 years.
The new ordinance adds “bodywork,” which it defines as “the practice of a person using touch to manipulate tissue in the course of treatment or therapy provided to another person that does not constitute massage as defined in Arizona Revised Statute.”