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The worn slate grey building near Denver Harbor with the barred windows and a guard dog out back bore none of the usual markings of a spa. Still, the red block lettering outside announced "PH Spa," open seven days a week.
The police publish mugshots of suspected massage parlor “johns”
Inside, however, Houston Police Department officers found lingerie, condoms and erotic posters littering a series of bedrooms, according to court records. During two years of investigation, three women were arrested and charged with prostitution and the owner for promoting prostitution.
City officials say PH Spa is not alone, one of hundreds of similar businesses in Houston that claim to be massage parlors or spas but instead sell sex and are sometimes involved in human trafficking. To target those establishments, City Council unanimously approved an updated ordinance Wednesday to make it easier for officers to inspect potentially illicit massage parlors.
City strengthens law to crack down on illicit massage businesses
Under the new law, uniformed officers will be able to inspect, either with the owner's permission or a warrant, any facility that advertises massage services, in addition to those that are already d under state law as massage establishments.
The illicit massage parlors can be difficult to gain access to and shut down, city officials said, often requiring the work of undercover officers. In the case of PH Spa, the Harris County attorney's office effectively shut the business down as part of a nuisance lawsuit this fall after a series of HPD raids.
And if they're gonna do that, we do have the ability to use our regulatory process. An online search in September found that some illicit massage businesses were offering sexual services, according to Minal Patel Davis, the mayor's advisor on human trafficking. Of those businesses, just nine were d through the state, which discouraged Patel Davis and the city's human trafficking task force from suggesting a local permitting system; if a business doesn't get d with the state, it's unlikely to seek one with the city.
Both Dallas and San Antonio require local permits for massage parlors in addition to those required by the state. San Antonio also lists all massage establishments as public places, making them easier for law enforcement to access. Patel Davis said Houston's approach balances the rights of legitimate massage businesses and focuses on the business owners of the establishments.
Giving HPD's code enforcement officers better access to the businesses also allows the city to single out the operators and owners rather than women who may be prostitutes, she said. There are some telltale s of illicit massage parlors, which tend to operate at irregular hours, advertise in unusually suggestive ways, featuring girls in lingerie and using phrases such as "body work," and often include an ATM on site.
Dan Harris, Captain of Naked massage houston HPD vice division, said the new law will allow the city's code enforcement officers, called the Differential Response Team, to chip away at those known establishments without adding more officers. Councilman Richard Nguyen's District F, which runs along Westpark Tollway to the west of downtown, was home to 22 percent of the illicit massage establishments in the city's September search, the largest share in all 11 districts. Councilman Ed Gonzalez, a former police officer who worked closely on the ordinance, said the law provides officers more direct access to the suspect businesses without creating the "big bureaucracy" of a permit system.
At-large councilman Jack Christie lauded the ordinance, too, comparing the difficulty of keeping pace with how the massage parlors operate to tracking changes in the sale of illegal drugs. If there's money in it and it's illicit you've got to stay one step ahead of it.
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