Politics & Government

Tacoma councilman thinks he has new way to crack down on massage parlors

Councilman Marty Campbell is proposing a city law that would bar massage parlors from operating between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., a regulation he said would help disrupt human trafficking in Tacoma.

In the wake of neighbor complaints coming out of his East Side district and prostitution stings on nine massage parlors in Tacoma and Lakewood earlier this month, Campbell is asking that a City Council committee take up the proposed amendment to the city’s code. Licensed medical facilities would be exempted from the curfew, he told the council at its Tuesday study session.

“This came up from many local residents who said they had these massage parlors operating in their neighborhood, but that men were arriving and leaving at all hours of the night, so we think something is not quite right,” Campbell said. “A lot of people go through a lengthy educational process to become a massage practitioner. They’re not working at 2 a.m..

“I think this is a reasonable step from the city. It’s not going to solve the problem of human trafficking — we have much more work to do on that, but I think it’s a … step that says we recognize it and this is one little thing we can do to help protect our residents.”

Nine people were arrested in recent busts, in which Lakewood police detectives spent eight months looking into two parlors where they suspected women were performing sexual acts on customers during $50 body massages. On the Tacoma side, police worked with several other agencies to serve search warrants in “an ongoing prostitution investigation” at seven massage parlors, according to a news release from Sept. 1.

Officer Loretta Cool of the Tacoma Police Department said she didn’t believe any of the arrests by Tacoma police were made outside of regular business hours. Most of those arrested were Chinese nationals, but when asked whether human trafficking was to blame, Cool declined to say, citing the ongoing investigation.

“It was prostitution and promoting prostitution that we charged people with,” Cool said. No minors were involved in the arrests. None of the women arrested for working in the massage parlors holds masseuse certifications in Washington, police said at the time.

Campbell described the businesses in a post on his Facebook page as “human trafficking operations masquerading as massage parlors” and cited involvement of Homeland Security and groups like the South Sound Child Exploitation Task Force and the Missing & Exploited Children’s Task Force as evidence of human trafficking of foreign nationals.

“They were being basically forced to work in these massage parlors and the only way they could make extra money was for any extra services,” Campbell said Tuesday, “so make no mistake, this is not someone who’s trying to pay their way through college. This is entirely different.”

Campbell said he came up with the hours of 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. after doing an internet search of some of the “legitimate” massage parlors’ operating hours, and noted that chains like Massage Envy, located in the Tacoma Mall, stay open until 10 p.m.

“I’m not out to have the legitimate ones have to adjust their hours,” Campbell said. “If we find that all the legitimate ones close at 9, then we can move that up.”

Campbell said if passed, the curfew would allow code enforcement to crack down on the parlors found operating late at night, and would help improve quality of life in those neighborhoods. It would also send a message to the operators of those businesses, he said.

Councilman Robert Thoms recommended that Campbell reach out to some of the medically-exempted, licensed massage facilities to see what hours they think are appropriate for that kind of service.

Candice Ruud: 253-597-8441, @candiceruud