By Andrea Lucia

DALLAS (CBSDFW.COM) – Dallas City Council member Cara Mendelsohn says she’ll never forget watching police shut down a sex trafficking operation masquerading as a massage parlor.

“There was one room that was no bigger than 10 x 10 and it was just completely filled with mattresses on the floor. And this is where 5 of the women were locked in all day unless they had customers,” she recalled.

Officers, she said, met in advance and had a board laying out details of the criminal enterprise, including who was involved, how money was being made, and how people were being moved.

“They’ll always tell you that policing is not like what you see on TV, but in this case, it actually was,” she said.

Since 2019, Dallas police have led 22 operations targeting massage businesses they say were fronts for organized crime.

The result has been 38 people arrested and 50 victims given resources to help them escape forced prostitution.

Mendelsohn said, after seeing the problem first-hand, she began asking about other tactics the city could use to stop trafficking.

The city of San Jose, where Dallas Police Chief Eddie Garcia previously worked, she found, had success with implementing new rules, such as barring sleeping quarters in massage businesses and requiring customers walk through the front door.

In Texas, that’s not so easy.

“The problem is that Texas has a law that supersedes what cities can do to massage parlors,” said Mendelsohn.

The state licenses and regulates massage businesses.

During a public safety committee meeting Monday, Jan. 10, Lt Lisette Rivera of the Dallas Police Department Vice Unit, explained the city isn’t allowed to enforce anything stricter than what the state requires.

“Businesses are inspected or investigated but mostly based on complaints and not easy, consistent regulatory process,” said Lt Rivera. “Businesses can shut down and they can open up under another name. Workers can be moved to another location or state. Also businesses can use anonymous shell companies that make it difficult to target the business owner.”

The Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation confirmed it has 10 field inspectors who visit licensed massage businesses and schools statewide to make sure they’re meeting licensing requirements, such as keeping the facility clean and sanitary, with an eye out for signs of trafficking.

A separate Anti-Trafficking Unit has six members who investigate complaints.

Mendelsohn believes the city’s police or code compliance officers could be deputized to do those inspections themselves and set higher fines for businesses who break the rules.

City leaders could consider lobbying the state for a change in the law that would allow them to implement new enforcement strategies. In the meantime, the city is considering regulation of similar reflexology or foot massage businesses, which do not fall under state oversight.

Police are also studying how other departments around the state are working within the law to crack down on trafficking.