Law enforcement officials in Harris County have stronger tools to use in shutting down sexually oriented businesses following the Oct. 9 approval by commissioners court of updates to the county’s regulations.
“A number of [the regulations] allow our law enforcement entities to be able to engage more directly with regard to the monitoring,” said Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle, who led the task force that updated the regulations. “A lot of our problems are ones that deal with human trafficking, or ones that deal with illegal activity. These regulations allow our sheriff and constables to engage in that process to be sure that those who are breaking or circumventing the rules will be held accountable.”
The new regulations allow extra leeway with regard to holding landlords who are engaged in and allow illegal activity. They give the county attorney's office some extra tools with regard to the civil side of being able to shut down the illicit businesses in the case of repeat offenders, Cagle said.
“Our regulation follows and tracks very closely to those regulations the City of Houston has, and we also have added layers of public input,” Cagle said. “We've had two public hearings [and] we have engaged community organizations.”
The issue of sexually oriented businesses—most commonly illicit massage parlors—became more of an issue after the City of Houston tightened up its ordinance in the late 1990s. Since the county is not a home-rule city it cannot pass ordinances, so commissioners needed approval from the legislature before approving the new regulations. State representatives Patricia Harless, R-Spring, and Debbie Riddle, R-Tomball, passed the legislation in the 2009 and 2011 sessions.
While the illicit businesses are concentrated primarily along FM 1960, they have begun to move westward, especially toward the Copperfield area. However, the new regulations are enforceable throughout all of unincorporated Harris County.
“[It will] help us stop the process of the revolving door,” Cagle said. “The county attorney's office, the district attorney and the sheriff engage in shutting down an entity or a business that is engaged in illegal activity, and then they just change the name and reopen two weeks later. [This] regulation will help stop that revolving door and will allow once the [officials] go through that onerous duty or process of making the bust, shutting down a business engaged in illegal activity in our neighborhoods that they can't just turn around and open up again a couple weeks later under a new name. It allows their work to have legitimacy.”