Illicit activity still happening in some of Tampa’s spas and massage parlors, police chief says

8 On Your Side

TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) – In 2017, 8 On Your Side exposed how Tampa was failing to end prostitution in nearly a dozen businesses. Our Storefronts for Sex investigation triggered a crackdown of these illicit health spas.

Now, in a frank interview, Tampa Police Chief Brian Dugan says he fears prostitution is still happening in some of the city’s spas and parlors.

“The issue we have is there’s not a lot of teeth in anything that law enforcement does,” said Chief Dugan.

The department’s patrol officers frequently drop in on health spas and massage parlors. Since April 2019, records show Tampa police officers have conducted dozens of checks of 17 businesses.

“We check licenses and we make sure that your ID is an accurate Florida license,” said Chief Dugan.

The police chief says they’re not catching crimes in progress.

“The people who run illicit operations like this know that we have to play by the rules,” he said.

Chief Dugan is worried about potential victims: Women working inside these facilities.

“Are they being held against their will?”

8 On Your Side sat down with Tampa Mayor Jane Castor to discuss the crackdown on illicit businesses.

“How would you grade Tampa?” asked investigative reporter Mahsa Saeidi.

“I think Tampa has been very effective,” said Mayor Castor. “We have put a great deal of effort into eliminating these locations that we have prostitution going on.”

Mayor Castor remembers a different time. Seven years ago, when she was chief of police, Castor was outspoken about this problem.

“Human trafficking is the modern-day form of slavery,” she stated at a press conference in 2013 after a bust.

Mayor Castor says there’s been a dramatic reduction in stores that are fronts for prostitution in recent years.

Still, 8 On Your Side asked if more can be done to eliminate more of this illegal activity.

“Well we’ve passed, on the state level, the licensing that all massage therapists have to have a license, so that’s one tool,” said Mayor Castor.

The mayor says the solution involves multiple tools and agencies. She believes the best approach is preventing women from getting into the business. But now that she’s the mayor, 8 On Your Side asked how she is going to finally shut down these illegal businesses.

“I think opening up to inspection, officers could walk through the entire building,” said Mayor Castor.

She says any change must be vetted and approved by the city attorney and that takes time.

In the meantime, Chief Dugan says this is not a problem that’s unique to Tampa.

8 On Your Side will be following up with the mayor and reaching out to city council members.

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