The Pikes Peak region’s multiagency drug and human trafficking task force will expand this year to include two more detectives who can tackle crime across the city and El Paso County, including illegal activity at massage parlors.
The detectives, one from the Colorado Springs Police Department and another from the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office, will continue the unit’s work toward tackling prostitution and human trafficking in massage parlors, Scott Whittington, commander of Metro Vice, Narcotics and Intelligence, said during a city council work session Monday.
So far this year, the unit has issued three arrest warrants for prostitution tied to massage parlors and conducted two sting operations at massage parlors where authorities suspect illegal activity is occurring, Whittington said.
In 2020, authorities made two arrests for prostitution and pimping that were directly tied to massage parlors, he noted.
Councilman Tom Strand said he has received several calls from residents expressing concerns that the city isn’t paying enough attention to the issue or expending adequate resources on it.
Police Chief Vince Niski said law enforcement has had challenges in their investigations because they have had to switch tactics as the prostitution business evolves in the city. While street prostitution used to be much more visible to law enforcement, it has since transitioned to escort services and now predominately exists in massage parlors.
At least 35 massage parlors in Colorado Springs could still be involved in illegal activity, he said.
But Niski cautioned against expanding the task force because of the police department’s low staffing levels.
“Our staffing numbers are significantly less this year than they have been in recent years,” he said. “A lot of units are vying for positions and we have to maintain a certain number of officers in patrol.”
The Colorado Springs Police Department's goal is to have 803 uniformed officers by 2022.
“Hopefully when we hit that number, then we will be able to ask the mayor for more officers to help our specialized units,” Niski said.
Councilman Bill Murray said he was surprised there was not a more developed process — combining local, state and national resources — to tackle larger prostitution and human trafficking operations.
“There’s a usually a bigger operation going and unless you focus on the bigger operation, you’re playing the ‘Whack-A-Mole' with the illicit individual parlors,” Murray said.
Niski said law enforcement has not found evidence of larger operations in Colorado Springs.
Whittington said it has been difficult to prove human trafficking exists in Colorado Springs “beyond reasonable doubt” because massage parlor employees have not disclosed any information to authorities.
Council President Richard Skorman cited the importance of targeting the owners of illicit businesses and partnering with victim advocacy groups.
“The women who are involved, we want to make sure that they are getting help if there is a situation where the business is shut down. ... I know some of them may have kids, they may be homeless, they may have no source of income,” Skorman said.
Murray added the need for a "safe haven” for victims of prostitution that gives them an opportunity to self-report and feel comfortable doing so.
After a lengthy investigation last year, police arrested the owner of now-shuttered Rose Spa in northeast Colorado Springs on suspicion of pimping and money laundering. The owner of the strip mall voluntarily terminated the lease after being notified by authorities, Whittington said.
Detectives have not seen the business open elsewhere, he said, noting that they believe the owner’s second business, Energy Day Spa in eastern Colorado Springs, is a legitimate massage parlor.
Whittington said police have used different tactics intended to end prostitution and sex trafficking at massage parlors, including issuing summons for those that are not licensed and issuing a public nuisance order, which usually leads a landlord to voluntarily evict the tenants. While some masseuses have licenses, most do not, Whittington said.
Detectives also tried writing warning letters to registered agents of a business about suspected prostitution, but the effect was limited, he said.
Issuing arrest warrants for a felony is the most time-consuming tactic and typically takes about 300 hours for police to investigate, review evidence and conduct interviews, Whittington said.
Issuing a public nuisance order requires about 100 staffing hours, he said, and includes a sting operation, which consists of many hours of surveillance and an undercover police officer soliciting prostitution.
Going forward, the unit will weigh which tactic is most effective in stopping illicit activity at massage parlors, Whittington said.