Howard County police detectives were told to talk with their wives or girlfriends before participating in a lengthy investigation of massage parlors that is being criticized for having undercover officers engage in sexual acts.
The county Police Department advised officers to consult with the women to avoid personal problems resulting from the seven-month investigation that led Tuesday to nine arrests under a tough county law enacted last year to regulate massage parlors.
Police and county officials said they received few complaints last week about the police measures, but local attorneys and the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Baltimore criticized the investigation, saying police went too far to get the arrests.
"It's highly unusual," said Jason Shapiro, an Ellicott City defense attorney. "It just seems like a lot of questionable behavior for a lot of minor charges."
Stuart Comstock-Gay, the ACLU's Baltimore director, questioned the use of public resources for the massage parlor investigation, which contrasts with a 1994 police raid on the Block in Baltimore, in which police were disciplined for similarly engaging in sexual acts with those charged.
"I'm skeptical at best that it's worthy of this kind of [police] attention," Mr. Comstock-Gay said.
Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker said he supports the police actions, noting that the county had received many complaints from citizens about sexual activity at the massage parlors.
"We didn't do anything illegal," Mr. Ecker said.
Mr. Ecker said he will review the investigation with Police Chief James N. Robey and other department officials to determine whether such measures will be used again to investigate illegal activity. The review should be concluded in two weeks.
In April, police began investigating Lilly's Spa in North Laurel; Hana Spa in Ellicott City; Oriental Spa in Elkridge; and Lotus Shiatsu Spa, Rainbow Spa and the now-closed Shogun Health Spa, all in Jessup.
The undercover officers were instructed by their supervisors that it was all right for them to be masturbated when they went to the massage parlors under investigation.
Masturbation is not illegal under prostitution laws but is illegal under the county's massage parlor law. That law makes it illegal merely to offer to massage "erogenous" areas of the body.
Lt. Jeffrey Spaulding, commander of the vice and narcotics division, defended the officers' engaging in masturbation, saying that to revoke the massage parlor licenses, the department needed to prove that massage technicians at each establishment regularly engaged in sexual acts.
He said that if the department had stopped the investigation after one encounter, only the technician could have been arrested, because the managers or owners could have denied that the act was their prevailing practice.
The investigation, approved by Chief Robey, cost $4,260 and 90 man-hours, Lieutenant Spaulding said, with each visit to a massage parlor costing about $100.
The nine women arrested at the six county-licensed parlors are the first to be charged under the county law.
Each woman is charged with misdemeanors that carry maximum penalties of as much as six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. Police have arrest warrants for seven other massage parlor employees.