Fresno human trafficking crackdown zeroes in on massage parlors

FRESNO, Calif.

On Thursday law enforcement officers, members of the faith community, non-profits and community activists joined City Council Member Clint Olivier in Downtown Fresno to unveil the legislation three years in the making.

They said the city's current ordinance is out of compliance with the state and hasn't been updated since 1974.

Supporters said the proposed changes give law enforcement officials the tools they need to clean up the industry.

A victim, who did not want to reveal her identity told Action News, she's currently fighting to get her life back after falling victim to human trafficking.

"My trafficker tried to put me in a massage parlor under cover for prostitution," she said.

The woman was living in the Bay Area when she met a man online who promised her a better life.

He then lured her to the Central Valley under the guise of a relationship and tried to force her into the sex trade.

"It's becoming less obvious. There's not as much walking the streets. There's more hiding behind the internet and hiding behind massage parlors," she added.

She said she was exposed to the inner workings of the industry which is why she supports the new proposed city ordinance called the "Ethic of Fresno Act" or Ending the Trafficking of Humans in the City.

"It's changing administratively how our city deals with massage practitioners and our massage parlors," said Council Member Olivier in a news conference.

He said, five years ago the Fresno Police Department estimated there were around 30 massage parlors operating in the city. That number has now exploded to more than 200 and officers believe dozens of them are working as fronts for the sex industry.

"We've been able to identify in excess of 200 victims of human trafficking. In the massage parlors, we've identified five of those businesses that have been closed in that time," said Sgt. Curt Chastain, who heads the Coalition Against Human Trafficking at the Fresno Police Department.

"A lot of it is unknown because it's in areas not well advertised. Of the locations we've closed down, those have come from tips and leads to our 24 hour hotline," said Sgt. Curt Chastain.

Chastain said the new ordinance would crack down on those providing illegal services by forcing therapists to provide a state license from the California Massage Therapy Council rather than seek clearance through Fresno Police.

"They will go to the state, get their compliance and it relieves the Fresno Police Department of vetting out every single masseuse. It will save time and labor for that investigator to do compliance checks out in then field," he said.

It would also limit hours of operation from 7am to 9pm, prohibit doors from being locked during business hours and require visibility from the street into the massage parlor. The first updates to the current ordinance in nearly 40 years.

If you're open past 9 o'clock and you're not running a brothel, what is really going on over there?" asked the victim. "It's something that would really have an impact."

The new ordinance would also set stiff penalties for parlors that employ unlicensed technicians.

Businesses would be slapped with a $1,000 fine for the first violation, $1,250 for the second violation within a year and $2,000 for the third violation plus a misdemeanor conviction and six months of prison time.

The Fresno City Council will take up the issue at its next meeting, November 21st.

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