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. "It should give us pause. Is this what our police should be doing?"
Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker said he supports the police actions, noting that the county had received many citizen complaints about sexual activity at the massage parlors.
"We didn't do anything illegal," Mr. Ecker said. "It's not been done in Howard County before, but [the practice] is not unique."
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 tTC 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 noted 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 investigation was "discussed at many levels, and it was decided this was the best way to obtain the evidence," he said.
Jonathan Scott Smith, a Columbia lawyer, said county officials' support for the investigation offers a striking contrast to the aftermath of the raid last year in Baltimore on The Block's strip joints and nightclubs. After the raid, the Maryland State Police disciplined some officers for becoming too involved with suspects and having sexual relations with them.
"Why is one agency disciplining their officers and another is encouraging them?" Mr. Smith said.
He said the Howard officers could have gotten enough evidence to make the arrests simply by waiting for the women to offer to perform a sexual act in exchange for money.
Howard County State's Attorney Marna McLendon said the officers needed to collect as much evidence as possible to ensure convictions under the county's massage parlor law.
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, who have not been found.
The law, which requires massage parlors to be licensed, prohibits massage technicians and their customers from exposing their breasts or genitals. It also prohibits sex acts at the parlors as well as offers to perform such acts.
It is not aimed at parlors giving health- and sports-related massages. Trained massage therapists and others with certain credentials are exempt from licensing.
Ms. McLendon said the law is not like prostitution laws, which have evolved over the years to the point where merely offering sex for money is enough for a conviction.
"This is a new law," she said. "I don't think anyone can say what's going to be needed to meet the burden of proof."
Ms. McLendon said she does not see any legal problems resulting from the Police Department's investigation, but she acknowledged that some people might see moral problems with the case.
The investigation was better handled than the county's last major massage parlor investigation in 1993, Ms. McLendon said. During that probe, a police informant was given money to have sexual intercourse with employees at massage parlors.
"You were using taxpayers' funds for an informant to have sex," Ms. McLendon said.
Lieutenant Spaulding said informants were not used in the more recent investigation because of credibility problems with informants in past cases. Some informants left town before providing information to police, he said.
Maj. Mark Paterni, second in command at the Police Department, said Chief Robey required that the spouses of each undercover officer be "comfortable" with the officer's participation in the investigation.
Ms. McLendon said officers were asked to consult with their spouses or girlfriends beforehand.
Lieutenant Spaulding noted that the officers volunteered for the assignment.
"This was a difficult decision for them," he said. "The officers thought long and hard about this investigation."
County Council Chairman Charles C. Feaga said the council might consider altering the county's massage parlor law to make it easier for police to investigate the establishments without having to engage in sex acts.
The council might consider banning massage parlors altogether because they bring "undesirables into Howard County," he said.