Wages of Vice

Police find a way to make money by busting massage parlors

But more troubling is the financial incentive that has been created for vice officers to arrest as many people as they can -- even women caught watching a Cosby rerun in the wrong place -- and the Police Department's stubborn refusal to explain what is happening to the money it collects.

Clamping down on the city's massage parlors has become politically fashionable of late. With housing tight and builders scouring San Francisco for new sites, city officials say they are receiving a steady stream of complaints from neighbors and developers concerned about threats to their property values.

In the past six months, police have stepped up their arrests of massage parlor workers, according to vice squad Officer Bob Davis. The Board of Supervisors recently extended a moratorium preventing any new parlors from opening in the Tenderloin and the Mission. District Attorney Terence Hallinan has taken to boasting about his efforts to crack down on the trade.

The official vigilance is a tad hypocritical, since the city licenses massage parlors in the first place, making it one of the few segments of the sex trades subject to some form of city regulation.

Unlike streetwalkers, massage parlors and their employees pay the city for permission to work, about $137,000 collectively each year. The money is earmarked for the Police, Public Works, and city Planning departments. There are 74 licensed establishments right now, employing an estimated 300 workers. The parlors pay $1,367 each for a license, and individual workers pay $200 for their initial permits, which can then be renewed for $57 a year.

To get a permit, a masseuse fills out an application with the vice squad. She must have a clean criminal record for the previous two years, and a certificate from a licensed massage school showing she has completed 70 hours of therapy training. In truth, one former massage worker says, it's easy to buy the required certificates for $1,500 without attending any classes. (Several California cities have much tougher requirements aimed at weeding out sex workers while licensing legitimate businesses. Daly City, Santa Clara, and Orange County, for instance, require massage therapists to complete 500 hours of training and pass a written anatomy test.)

The city has been collecting licensing fees for decades. But only within the past two years have the police figured out how to make money by busting the parlors as well.

The practice began after Hallinan was elected district attorney. Under former DA Arlo Smith's regime, most cases against massage parlor workers were dismissed and enforcement languished, says current DA spokesman John Shanley.

After Hallinan took office, he moved to change things. He decided to funnel massage parlor cases into a diversion program run by California Community Dispute Services.

CCDS was a curious choice. The nonprofit agency was established in the 1970s to offer mediation services for warring parties, such as neighbors with disagreements or fighting couples. CCDS also accepts referrals from the DA's Office involving such minor infractions of the law as drinking in public, graffiti, or minor drug possession. CCDS had no experience counseling or aiding sex industry workers when Hallinan made his decision. Shanley says CCDS was picked because there were no other agencies available to handle the massage parlor cases.

One reason Hallinan opted for the diversion program, critics say, is because massage parlor arrests are notoriously difficult to prosecute, and if Hallinan pressed the cases in court he might lose. Shanley concedes that the cases are generally weak.

With streetwalkers, for example, an undercover cop can wear a wire, capture a conversation in which a deal for sex is struck, and make an arrest.

But in massage parlors, customers typically remove most or all of their clothing before getting down to business, making hidden microphones problematic. Discussions of potential sex acts are often communicated in metaphors that are intentionally vague. Police have to wait until the woman strikes a deal and then commits an "act of furtherance" like pulling out a condom or removing some particular piece of her clothing.

That explains why most of those arrested in massage parlors aren't busted for actual prostitution, but instead are cited for being on the premises of a brothel.

If just one worker at a massage parlor can be nabbed breaking the law, everyone in the building is subject to arrest on prostitution-related charges. Two weeks ago, for instance, vice cops raided a Tenderloin massage parlor and arrested 16 people. Only one of the women had been caught soliciting sex, but everyone was taken to jail, photographed, and fingerprinted.

CCDS President Tom Bateman estimates that three-quarters of the cases referred to his agency by Hallinan's office involve women caught hanging out at a "house of ill repute."

Critics decry the "house of ill repute" arrests as bogus, and say the DA's Office would have a hard time making the cases stick if the women insisted on going to court.

Doug Rappaport, a lawyer and former board member of CCDS, says one of the reasons Hallinan funnels the cases to CCDS is because the DA knows the arrests wouldn't hold up in court.

"They're missing an essential element of the crime," Rappaport says. "They are cases that cannot sustain a conviction in criminal court."

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