KENT, Wash. — The City of Kent prioritized closing illegal massage businesses, shuttering 18 of them, and recently made it easier for police to arrest owners who break the law.
They operate quietly, late at night, mostly unknown to all but their regulars. The illicit massage businesses, which don't comply with state health standards, are often fronts for prostitution and organized crime, the City of Kent said.
“They almost exclusively are dealing with people from a different nation. There's a high level of concern that these people come here, and it is part of a human trafficking scheme,” said Pat Fitzpatrick, Kent City Attorney.
In 2018, the City of Kent decided to do something about it. Police started investigating and found 18 storefronts which were hubs of illegal activity. They made arrests and the city shut the businesses down.
“These are human beings that are being forced into this work, they're indentured servants, and we have an obligation to make that a priority, and the City of Kent did,” said Kent Chief of Police Rafael Padilla.
The investigation lasted months and took a lot of police and city resources. To further crack down on violators, the City of Kent recently passed an ordinance making it easier for police to arrest massage business owners who break the law.
“We can look at whether or not they've met the state requirements for sanitation and hygiene health requirements and that alone gives us the opportunity to shut them down,” Padilla said.
“We learned that if we push hard enough, they will go away,” Fitzpatrick said.
The City of Kent says none of the illicit massage businesses it shut down have come back. The concern, though, is that some of the people involved in those businesses may have just moved to other storefronts elsewhere in the region.
Kent police hope other cities will consider making this issue a priority, and they say they’re willing to share what they’ve learned with investigators from other departments. It may require more attention from the state level as well, Padilla said.