In busts of illicit massage parlors, do some Utah officers let touching go too far?

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Massage Time, a former massage parlor in Taylorsville, is photographed Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2020.

The masseuse had just rubbed oil on the naked undercover officer lying on her table in a Midvale massage parlor. She started on his back, then told him to flip over. Eventually, she tapped him on a leg and told him the massage was done.

For some police agencies in Utah, that’s where the touching would end. But the Unified police officer urged her to continue, motioning to her that he wanted a sex act, he later wrote in a 2018 police report.

The woman complied, removing a small towel that was draped over his waist, and began touching his genitals.

“I stood up and removed [her] hand,” he wrote, “ … and told her I needed to use the bathroom immediately. I gave the bust signal.”

As he was putting his clothes back on, other officers burst into the business to arrest her.

Unified police officials say this was not unusual; about half of their undercover operations targeting so-called massage parlors involve the masseuse touching an officer’s genitals before an arrest is made. It’s necessary, they say, to show that the employees are engaged in sex acts because it can be difficult to communicate with workers who do not speak fluent English.

Some experts say tactics like this are outdated, inappropriate and, often, not necessary to prove a criminal case in Utah. They say it also ignores that many of these employees are doing sex work because they have been trafficked.

“There is no bone in my body that says that is the right thing to do,” said Chris Burbank, a former Salt Lake City police chief who now works with the Center of Policing Equity. “You, in fact, committed the crime and then arrested the other person for that crime.”

A different focus

Polaris Project, a national nonprofit that focuses on human trafficking, estimates there are more than 9,000 massage businesses nationwide whose workers also engage in sex acts. It estimates that they rake in a combined $2.5 billion a year.

The nonprofit says the best way for officials to deal with these companies is by gathering evidence to revoke their business licenses. The nonprofit also urges police to focus on investigating a criminal network as a whole, instead of prosecuting individual workers on low-level prostitution charges.

Bountiful police took that general approach in 2016, when they targeted a woman who owned a massage business there — and also owned the Midvale shop where the Unified officer would be touched two years later.

Bountiful officers set up security cameras at a nearby company to document who was coming in and out of her business. They talked to men who admitted they had paid for sex acts.

They sent in an undercover officer to solicit a sex act — but he was told no sexual touching could happen, according to preliminary hearing testimony. Sex acts could be discussed, Officer Aric Barker testified, but “they weren’t to receive anything other than a massage.”

The officer also took in a specialized credit card that would capture the shop’s credit card records when swiped. The information was later used to find additional customers who had paid for massages.

Two of those men detailed their visits on the witness stand. One said he went to the business at first because he had back problems but returned several times and paid for sexual contact. The other said he decided to visit after the business caught his eye while he was at his favorite juice shop nearby. He, too, came back several times after massages ended in sex acts.

The owner, Brenda Zang, challenged the tactics used by Bountiful police, saying their surveillance and capture of her credit card records was improper. But she eventually pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors, admitting in court papers that she hired workers from out-of-state and different countries with the expectation that they engage in sexual activities with customers.

After delays in the case, she was sentenced to probation and 30 days in jail last month.

‘We’re playing a role’

When officers investigate sex solicitation, Utah law requires only an agreement to exchange money for sex acts to make an arrest — sexual contact isn’t necessary.

Yet Unified police officials say that sometimes touching is required when an undercover officer encounters a language barrier and can’t verbally negotiate a deal.

With workers who don’t speak English well, “it is extremely difficult to get a prosecution without having valid evidence to articulate that they were doing a sex act,” Unified Police Detective Geoff Clark said. “They aren’t going to talk about it. No hand signals. They won’t write it down.”

The policy manual for Unified Police instructs officers to have “limited” physical contact with suspected sex workers, and they are not supposed to initiate sexual contact. Clark said that if an officer’s genitals are touched during a sting, the contact lasts only a few seconds.

“We’re playing a role,” he said. “It’s not that we are getting a [sex act]. That’s not occurring, nor has that ever occurred.”

But Layton police spokesman Lt. Travis Lyman said his department builds cases through “conversation.” Undercover officers aren’t allowed to touch masseuses and aren’t supposed to be touched themselves, outside of the touching required for a normal massage.

“Sometimes [the sex worker’s] answer [to a solicitation] comes in a nonverbal way," Lyman said, “but the second that happens, we stop that and we don’t allow that to progress at all.”

Salt Lake City police spokesman Keith Horrocks said his department also doesn’t require sexual touching to make an arrest. When an officer encounters a language barrier, he said, he or she can find ways to come to an agreement — just like regular clients do.

“Is there a language barrier? Yes,” he said, “But when you’re talking about the language of sex, there’s not a lot of barrier there.”

During a negotiation, “I can imagine if you’re in those situations, that every once in a while maybe something unfortunately does happen, then there may be some touching,” Horrocks said, giving an example of an “overly anxious” sex worker who “just wants to get down to business.”

If an officer is touched by a masseuse in such a situation, they aren’t violating department policy; but the officer should do what he or she can to limit the contact, Horrocks said.

Burbank described relying on sexual touching as archaic, in line with old cop dramas where the characters playing undercover investigators would snort a line of cocaine to keep up appearances.

“There’s no expectation for officers to do that,” he said, “but why do we still, in [massage stings] allow that to take place?”

A spokesman for the Utah attorney general’s office, which has put an emphasis on investigating crimes associated with human trafficking, said they don’t send undercover officers into massage businesses at all. They declined to disclose what investigative techniques they use.

What about the buyers?

Often victims of human trafficking who are forced into sex work are compelled to continue because the massage business owners limit their means of escape, experts say.

The workers "are told they will be deported by immigration, or their families will be hurt; that they owe the owner money and that if they leave, police will arrest them for prostitution,” Polaris wrote in a report about the industry. “Every story is a little different but they all share a common pattern that combines fraud, threats and lies with poverty, fear and the potential for violence.”

Polaris and the Refugee and Immigrant Center of the Asian Association of Utah, which Polaris thanked for contributing information to the report, did not return calls for comment.

Clark, at Unified police, said stings of individual workers are still valuable, precisely because many of them are victims of human trafficking.

After a bust, the detective said, workers are often connected to services to help them — regardless of whether they agree to work with authorities to bring a case against the business owners.

But Horrocks said victims often are too scared to speak up, so officers never know for sure their background, and such workers don’t access services that could help them.

And arrests often saddle marginalized workers with a criminal record, making it harder for them to find legitimate jobs — and that can lead to a return to illicit massage, Burbank said.

He said that, at the very least, officers should make sure that when they show up to enforce prostitution laws, they aren’t doing so at the detriment of the real victims: “My standard is always if we show up as the police and the situation gets worse, then we’re not doing the job the way we should be.”

Burbank said he knows the switch away from prosecuting individual workers can be hard for departments. He dealt with it personally while Salt Lake City’s police chief, when he disbanded the department’s vice unit in 2012 after officers were found to have sexually touched women in massage parlor and prostitution stings.

Burbank brought the vice unit back later that year, with a new direction: Focus on those buying sex and those who employ the sex workers.

Officers investigating illicit massage businesses ought to consider why they are so common, he said, and it’s simple: There’s high demand for these sex acts, and the people willing to pay for it often face no consequences.

The men who testified in the Bountiful case were never charged. In another case, Orem investigators stopped a man they saw leaving a massage business, according to a 2018 search warrant. He admitted he bought a sex act, but the warrant sought focused on the woman who had performed it.

The Polaris Project also suggests that police arrest the customers; but SLCPD’s Horrocks and Lyman in Layton said their departments don’t focus on buyers. Both police spokesmen said it’d be harder to build such cases.

“We’re not in the room to know that something’s taken place, right?" Horrocks said. “So, it becomes more of a ‘he said, she said’ thing.”

Polaris points out that customers are increasingly going online to suss out whether a massage business offers more than back rubs. One of the most popular sites, the nonprofit says, is Rubmaps, which lists more than 200 Utah locations, some open and some closed.

The site hosts reviews — which users also write to alert one another to possible police surveillance. During a Bountiful police investigation, for example, a user posted about receiving a variety of sex acts at a shop, but then spotted a police surveillance camera on a tripod set up across the street

“Just thought I would give [y’all] heads up,” the reviewer wrote.

Utah police often cite Rubmaps as evidence of illegal acts, using those reviews to justify to a judge that a search warrant or investigative subpoena is needed. But when a business is raided and its workers are arrested, reviewers advise others on the site to be patient.

Often, a similar new enterprise will open up in its place — a trend Polaris has noted nationwide. On reviews for Utah businesses busted by police, The Salt Lake Tribune found, more recent Rubmaps users have left comments saying they’d since received sex acts during massages.


The Polaris Project operates the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline. If you need help, or encounter or suspect human trafficking, call 1 (888) 373-7888, or text “BeFree” to 233733.

Find more resources at polarisproject.org.

The Utah Human Trafficking Tipline is 801-200-3443.