The Eagle Rock Neighborhood Council voted to support a 2011 Los Angeles City Council resolution by Councilman José Huizar, seeking to give the city greater authority over massage parlors by amending a 2008 state law.
Tuesday’s 16-1 vote came on the busiest night yet for the roughly 4-month-old ERNC board—a little more than hour before it opposed granting a liquor license to a proposed 7-Eleven store on York Boulevard.
At least three videographers from media organizations, including KCET, attended the first part of the meeting, which was dominated by a discussion on massage parlors in Eagle Rock.
ERNC President Michael Nogueira kicked off the discussion on massage parlors in the neighborhood. “I have one right next door to my office and I see the trafficking of men in and out all day,” he said, adding: “No women—men.”
Stephanie Romero, a representative of newly elected California Assemblyman Jimmy Gomez, will be working with Huizar’s office and the City Attorney’s office to coordinate efforts to monitor massage parlors, Nogueira said, drawing the meeting’s attention to Huizar’s Jan. 18, 2011 resolution on massage parlors.
The resolution alludes to Senate Bill 731, which became law in 2008 and established the California Massage Therapy Council, empowering the nonprofit organization to certify massage therapists and effectively depriving municipalities and counties from jurisdiction over massage parlors, starting in September 2009. (Read the resolution in the attached PDF.)
LAPD Vice Unit
LAPD Officer Jesse Soltero of the Northeast Vice Unit told the meeting that he and his colleagues have identified 24 massage parlors in the Eagle Rock area. The vice unit routinely monitors the parlors, based on complaints from community members, Soltero said, adding: “We try to prioritize which [parlors] are the most frequent violators.”
The LAPD is preparing to contact the owners of the properties where the most frequent violators are based, Soltero’s vice unit colleague, Det. Mike Valdez, said. “We get the property owners to come and sit down with us and the City Attorney’s office and we’re going to provide training for them.”
The training will revolve around making landlords aware of the problem of massage parlors and what goes on in them. “We substantiate that information with evidence of violations of [massage parlor] permits, evidence of arrest reports, and educate them about what to look for,” Valdez said, adding: “At that point, these owners will be on notice. Now they know what the problem is, they know what’s going on, so it’s not a case where they can just sit back and play the I-Don’t-Know game and take the money [from tenants].”
The next step will be to give the property owners a reasonable amount of time to get rid of shady tenants. “If they don’t do that, we start the abatement process—that means the property gets taken away from them, and I don’t think they’re gonna want that,” Valdez said.
“Part of the problem we’ve been having is that [parlors] will get closed down in one spot and they’ll jump to another one,” Valdez said. To prevent such relocation, the LAPD is planning to train people who own empty properties, thereby making them aware of the consequences of leasing out their stores to fishy tenants, the detective explained.
Valdez acknowledged that some massage parlors are legitimate, aboveboard businesses. “But our experience up to this point has been that a good 80 percent of them are not operating the way they should.”
Massage parlors need one of two kinds of permits to stay in business in Los Angeles, Soltero told the meeting. The first is a business license obtained from the city, which is applicable only in the city of L.A. And the second is a state certificate given to qualified therapists, which can be used anywhere in California, Soltero said.
The big difference between the two permits is that those who get the city license have to deal with zoning authorities, while there’s no such requirement for people who have a state certificate. And that is creating a preference for the state certificate, Soltero said, adding: “We’ve got to develop other laws and measures to have some kind of permanent resolution.”
On Jan. 21, the vice unit conducted an investigation of massage parlors in the Eagle Rock area, Soltero said. Nine people were arrested in the sweep—six of them for violating state certificates, one for prostitution, and two on narcotics charges.
“Do you think there’s any human trafficking?” asked ERNC President Nogueira. “Because a lot of them don’t speak very good English.”
Whenever they conduct an operation, vice unit officers look for signs of human trafficking: “Are they young, are they timid, when we talk to them, do they feel comfortable talking to us?” said Soltero.
“There’s obviously an element of that and we’re conscious of it,” Valdez said, adding: “The LAPD also have a human trafficking unit, “but up to this point we haven’t had to use them.”
Nogueira told the meeting that political leaders concerned about the menace of massage parlors will try to push for pre-2009 enforcement measures, including that massage parlors be located within a certain distance from schools and liquor stores.
Massage Therapy Council
Amos Netanel, CEO of the California Massage Therapy Council, established under Senate Bill 731 in 2008 and in existence since February 2009 to implement state massage laws, kicked off the public comments period by declaring that it’s imperative for his organization to work with “state and local leaders—local communities, local businesses and law enforcement” to achieve two goals.
“Illegal massage parlors that cater to prostitution and cause human trafficking must be closed down and massage therapists who are dedicated to providing health and relaxation to clients deserve the opportunity to work in an environment where they and their clients are safe and are treated with respect,” Netanel said.
“You people in this community are underlying today a problem which is real—and it’s devastating,” he said, adding that last month he convened a meeting with the Los Angeles Police Commission and the Los Angeles City Attorney’s office to brief them about a new law that he said the California Massage Therapy Council had sponsored. The law took effect Jan. 1 and it is designed to make it “easier to shut down illicit businesses.”
Asked by ERNC President Nogueira if it’s true that part of his salary comes from an “association fee” paid by massage parlors, Netanel replied that “our only source of revenue is the fee that applicants pay to be certified.” Netanel also denied, when asked by Nogueira, that he owns any massage parlors.
“Its’ interesting that since this Senate Bill passed and your board took over, they’re popping up left and right the massage parlors,” Nogueira said, adding: “Before that, we didn’t have this problem.”
Netanel replied that neither the state of California nor his organization has any jurisdiction over massage establishments. “The only entities that have control over massage establishments are the cities and the counties,” he said, adding that the California Massage Therapy Council only provides certification for massage therapists under stringent standards that include 250-500 hours of training as well as thorough background checks by the U.S. Department of Justice.
Asked by ERNC Board Member Michael Blanchard what his organization’s position is regarding Councilman Huizar’s resolution on massage parlors, Netanel said that it’s important to understan that local governments, including cities and counties, are part of the California Massage Therapy Council.
“The city of L.A. is being represented on our council through the California League of Cities,” Netanel said, adding that Los Angeles has a voting member on the council, who happens to be a member of the California Police Chiefs Association.
“We work hand in hand with the California League of Cities and the California Police Chiefs Association,” not to mention the Los Angeles Police Commission and the L.A. City Attorney, Netanel said. “The idea is to work together both on statewide and local levels,” he added. “Whatever we can do to further protect the public we are eager to do.”
Netanel, who said he has lived in L.A. for the past 30 years and is “very familiar with what’s happening here,” acknowledged that there is a correlation between Senate Bill 731 and the mushrooming of massage parlors in the city.
“What is happening on York Boulevard is completely unacceptable,” he said. “Specifically, why is it happening—how come it is happening here more than in other cities is one of the reasons why we’ll be sitting down both with local leaders and leaders on the state level to discuss the specifics and to see how can solve this problem.”
In response to a question from ERNC Vice President David Greene about what percentage of people arrested for massage parlor violations are state-certified, LAPD Vice Unit Sgt. Carrasco replied: “About 80 percent of them.”
A Therapy Council With Teeth?
Richard McElroy, a retired law enforcement officer who is the California Massage Therapy Council’s professional standards division director, told the meeting that his division is comprised of 15 investigators who are former law enforcement vice officers handpicked from throughout the state.
“Under these conditions, we are able to investigate [massage therapy] schools to make sure they’re legitimate,” McElroy said, adding that the council’s professional standards division goes to the extent of revoking the certification of therapists who may have been arrested for prostitution but whose charges may have been reduced (to loitering, for example). “That is something L.A. city cannot do,” McElroy said. “Nobody in the entire state does not do.”
McElroy said that as a police officer he worked the massage parlor beat for 25 years to 28 years. “And I can tell you that the system that we had before we came into being didn’t work—it was going back to the dark ages,” he said. “What works is our ability to get these people and get rid of them very fast. I tell all the police departments that certificates are the hardest to get and the easiest to lose.”
McElroy said that there are some legislative measures in the pipeline that will help address some of the problems faced by local communities such as Eagle Rock.