Facing a near quadrupling of the number of illicit massage parlors in Petaluma, the police department has begun crafting an ordinance aimed at requiring all massage therapists to be officially licensed in an effort to crack down on prostitutes masquerading as masseuses.

Petaluma Police Lieutenant Tim Lyons said that because there is currently no state law requiring massage therapists to obtain a license, it has fallen to cities to regulate the activities inside these establishments.

"We're actively trying to get an ordinance in place," said Lyons. "San Rafael has one and that's the model we are currently looking at."

San Rafael's ordinance, adopted in March of 2011, requires that the California Massage Therapy Council license anyone working as a massage therapist within the city limits, a standard that Petaluma's People's Choice 2012 winner of Best Masseuse Doris Watson supports as a way to separate serious, trained masseuses from the illicit variety that call themselves by the same name.

"The state council requires more than 500 hours of training, a licensing fee of $250 and a relicensing fee to be paid every three years," said Watson. "Every city should abide by that standard. I think it would most certainly help eliminate this illegal element that's going on," she said, referring to erotic massage businesses.

Detective Paul Gilman said that monitoring illegal massage parlors, which often advertise on the Internet, is very difficult because the crime is only a misdemeanor and the department can only serve search warrants for felony crimes.

"So we have to rely on reports from neighbors and we just don't have the resources to investigate the way we should to bust these types of establishments," Gilman said.

The department used to have a task force called the Street Crimes unit, which targeted these types of crimes, but as budget shortfalls forced staff cuts, prostitution and illegal massage parlor investigations fell to detectives and patrol officers who are often too busy investigating more serious crimes.

"When you lose specialized units, you have to start ranking cases and this element gets overlooked," added Gilman.

Surprisingly, Lyons said police sometimes receive reports from dissatisfied customers who did not receive the illicit services they wanted. He added that legitimate massage therapists who operate out of their homes could become victims of crime if they are mistaken for illegal parlors.

In Petaluma and many other cities, police resources are already stretched thin. Lyons said that targeting illicit massage parlors is not only time-consuming but often fruitless because officers don't have recourse to revoke a worker's license.

"We're trying to make it so that we have an ordinance that can control hours of operation and allows us to conduct inspections to make sure establishments are complying with suggested requirements, like not having any locked massage rooms," said Lyons. "Right now, we can bust them, but they can continue to work elsewhere, so they often just reopen at new locations."

Another police concern is the additional criminal element that illegal parlors can bring to an area. In November, two armed men robbed Anna's Massage, a parlor operated out of a home on Vallejo Street that was listed on the sexual services website MyRedbook.com.

"Like in the robbery on Vallejo Street, a different element may come in to utilize massage parlors," said Lyons. "Sometimes there are drugs and violations connected with this type of business that makes the community unsafe for everyone."

Lyons pointed out that in February a man in an illicit massage parlor in Santa Rosa strangled his massage therapist and proceeded to kill himself by running out into traffic.

"That's the kind of crime we are trying to prevent here," he added.

Watson said that making sure every massage parlor only employs California certified therapists is a first step in curbing this trend that has found a niche audience in Petaluma: "With everything we've already discovered about the illegal activity here — of all places — Petaluma should be stepping up to the plate and help eliminate these illegal activities."

Lyons said that he is not sure when the department will have something to present to the city council, but hopes it will be soon. "We have to do a little more research, but we're getting close," he said.

(Contact Janelle Wetzstein at janelle.wetzstein@arguscourier.com)