HOWARD POLICE are quick to point out that officers broke no laws in their seven-month investigation of county massage parlors, which included allowing themselves to be fondled sexually by masseuses. Indeed, county law levels no penalties against the customers of such outlets.
Still, while the letter of the law may not have been violated, basic community principles were. The officers' actions, approved by Police Chief James N. Robey, dealt a blow to the prestige of the department.
Ridding the community of prostitution that masquerades as something more legitimate is laudable. But the police, by their actions, sent a message that, even though the community has charged them with holding the highest standards of conduct, some officers are corruptible, that moral lines sometimes are crossed and that some police officers know they can act in unscrupulous ways without penalty.
As a result, just as the sexual escapades of state police in the raid of Baltimore's Block last year ultimately undercut that operation, so too has Howard's massage parlor investigation been harmed.
The specter of police officers allowing themselves to be fondled by massage technicians raises serious questions about the use of public funds for such an investigation. Police insist they conducted their probe so as to improve the chances of winning convictions. Officers were looking for patterns, not isolated incidents. Hence, they returned to the same establishment time and again. Seven months of work have produced nine arrests so far.
Howard County State's Attorney Marna McLendon, who doesn't think she was made aware of the police tactics beforehand, nonetheless supports them. Since the county law governing massage parlors is relatively new, it has not been tested in court. The police who allowed themselves to be fondled have built a better case against the parlors, she maintains. But no one really knows how high the courts will set the standard for conviction in such cases.
Police officials should have more carefully considered the broader ramifications of what they were doing in the course of their investigations. They may not have broken any laws, but
they tarnished the badge by crossing the line.