Older Stories: Houston Officers Can Now Get Naked For Prostitutes

Unwritten Policy Allows Vice Officers To Disrobe
UPDATED: 10:08 am PST January 25, 2005

HOUSTON — Some undercover cops in Houston are now uncovered.

A Harris County prosecutor said Houston police are now allowed to undress as part of prostitution investigations. Some hookers demand johns take off all their clothes before negotiating a price. They mistakenly believe a real cop won’t get naked.

Police Chief Harold Hurtt said officers are now able to take off their clothes in an effort to persuade suspected prostitutes to negotiate sex acts. During a four-month sting operation that ended with 56 arrests in November, some undercover vice officers dropped their covers altogether.

“Someone had to do something to shut these places down,” said Harris County Assistant District Attorney Ted Wilson. “It was just so widespread. It had almost gotten in your face.”

Hurtt changed a long-standing, unwritten department policy to allow undercover vice officers to disrobe in such cases.

When asked if the policy was appropriate, Hurtt responded, “Is it appropriate to allow prostitution to occur in the city?”

The Houston Police Department has stepped up efforts to crack down on the “spa scene.” Besides the new policy, authorities are using organized-crime charges to prosecute owners and operators of prostitution businesses.

“I think you can drive around the city and look for yourself and see the number of spas and modeling agencies out there masquerading as legitimate businesses,” Hurtt said.

In exchange for testimony against the owners of the Wildflower Group and Escapes of Houston, authorities agreed to drop prostitution charges against all but one of the 50 women arrested during the Nov. 16 raids.

The businesses, said police, are among some 200 across Houston that advertise themselves as “day spas,” “stress relief clinics,” “massage parlors” and “modeling studios,” but are really fronts for prostitution.

William Henry Costa and Mary Elizabeth Johnston, the Wildflower Group owners, were arraigned in a state district court Monday morning.

Former golf teacher Randall Jones, Escapes of Houston owner, was scheduled to appear in court later this month with three co-owners and operators.

Recently, growth of so-called “day spas” and “stress clinics” has caused a surge in residents’ complaints about prostitution.

It had become almost impossible for vice officers to make arrests in such businesses because the workers, aware of prohibitions on police getting undressed, will not negotiate sex acts for money unless a man removes his clothes, Wilson said.

“The old street prostitution cases are easy, but the people running these massage parlors are sophisticated,” he said.

Prostitutes’ tactics are forcing police to the limits of acceptable practices to make arrests, said Charlie Fuller, executive director of the Clarkrange, Tenn.-based International Association of Undercover Officers.

“I can assure you that these undercover officers don’t want to get naked, but they don’t have a choice,” he said, adding that many large-city police departments allow officers to get nude to make arrests.

But Robyn Few, an ex-prostitute who directs Sex Workers Outreach Project USA, said vice officers are fighting a losing battle.

“People need to recognize prostitution as a profession,” she said.

Houstonians had mixed reactions.

“It is OK with me for them to take off their clothes to make the case because that’s the only way they can actually make the case,” Dakota Bowers said.

“The problem is the women will now request the officer actually physically touch them. So, even though the chief has made some modifications, the sexual-oriented business industry will simply make modifications. So, it’s really a bigger issue than changing policy,” said Joshua Bullard, with the Harris County Courtroom Observers Association.

An assistant district attorney said that the disrobing rule has withstood legal challenges in other states.

Prosecutor Ted Wilson said some plainclothes officers were without their clothes during a four-month sting operation. The investigation ended in November with 56 arrests.

Link to original on KCRA.com


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