An upcoming proposed ordinance that will specifically prohibit sexual activity at Billings massage parlors took up the lion’s share of the Billings City Council’s work session Monday.
Brandon Walter, a Billings-based special agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, told the council there were nearly 20,000 ads posted online between October 2016 and October 2017 regarding the availability of commercial sex in Billings. Bozeman and Missoula had about one-fourth that number or less, he said.
“Go to those websites,” he suggested. “You will see that they are not selling massage.”
“I’m a little leery of going to those websites,” Mayor Tom Hanel replied.
Walter, who has also been working on human trafficking issues around Montana, said about half of those online ads were posted by Billings massage parlors.
He suggested a two-pronged approach involving both stepped-up enforcement and passage of an ordinance regulating behavior at massage parlors.
“There are legitimate massage parlors in town,” said Councilman Ryan Sullivan. “But at others, you think things are going on that are wrong there, and they are.”
Sullivan and Councilman Mike Yakawich have been working with city staff on developing an ordinance for council consideration. Sullivan said he has a draft ordinance that he will distribute to council members.
Police Chief Rich St. John said the ultimate goal is to “get offenders into the federal system, because they leave a mark when there is a conviction.”
He said police have made two prostitution arrests in 2017. Both were misdemeanors.
Tiffiny Russell, a licensed massage therapist and the co-owner of the Mossmain College of Massage, said that male clients have propositioned her on numerous occasions “because of the proliferation of these massage parlors. There is this understanding that’s what massage therapists do.”
“This is a safety issue for massage therapists,” she told council members, urging them to pass the ordinance when it comes before them. With more than 300 licensed massage therapists in Billings providing legitimate care for their clients, “we hope you do indeed pass an ordinance to keep us safe.”
“People believe prostitution is a victimless crime,” she said, “but when they use (massage therapy) to cloak activities, that puts legitimate massage therapists at risk, too.”
Police at Billings Clinic
St. John said that under an agreement still being developed, Billings Clinic will pay for at least two officers initially — and as many as seven eventually — to work solely on the hospital’s campus.
The developing agreement will be similar to those the department has with School District 2 for school resource officers and the Downtown Billings Alliance for its downtown resource officers.
Billings Clinic “wants a 24/7 operation eventually,” St. John told the council. “I suggest we start with two to get the program going and moving forward.”
New officers would have to be hired, he said, with officers already with the department available to work on the Billings Clinic campus. St. John said there are a handful of candidates already certified who can be hired quickly, rather than waiting for new officers to complete their training at the Montana Law Enforcement Academy.
Currently, officers work on some of their days off in the emergency department and other areas. Billings Clinic pays for these services.
“They are looking for more coverage,” St. John said. “We expect them to be quintessential police officers. It’s a big campus with a big footprint downtown, and it’s pretty much ground zero for our transient population.”
He said he wants Billings Clinic officers “out there being seen, helping people get to their vehicles at night and making sure staff is safe.”
St. John said St. Vincent Healthcare has not asked the department about a similar service for its Billings campus.