HOUSTON (AP) — Houston is getting an unusual ally in its fight against human trafficking: some of the city's topless clubs.
As part of settling a long-running lawsuit over an ordinance regulating sexually oriented businesses, 16 topless clubs have agreed to contribute more than $1 million annually to a fund that will combat human trafficking, Houston Mayor Annise Parker announced Wednesday.
Houston Police Chief Charles McClelland said the fund will help create a new unit with nine officers who will focus solely on investigating such cases.
For more than a decade, the 16 clubs and the city had been engaged in a legal fight over the 1997 ordinance. The main issue was a portion of the ordinance that requires sexually oriented businesses — which include strip clubs, adult book stores and spas — to be located at least 1,500 feet from schools, day care centers, parks and churches.
Under the agreement, the 16 clubs can continue operating in their current locations. Sexually oriented businesses not part of the settlement still have to comply with the ordinance.
John Weston, an attorney for the clubs, said the city and the businesses have come together against a common foe, the "heartless, despicable scourge of human sexual trafficking."
"Historically the city and these 16 responsible clubs have warred. But today they join to declare war against trafficking and those who engage in it, a war to the death, which these two allies have vowed not to lose," Weston said.
Parker said the settlement doesn't give these businesses "a free pass" as police will continue to monitor them for prostitution, public lewdness, drug activity and other crimes.
"There will be those in the community who don't approve of this settlement. There will be those who will never be comfortable with adult entertainment venues, and I understand and respect that," Parker said. "But in terms of the future of the city of Houston, this is a good step forward. It gives us tools to tackle what we think to be a more significant problem and it allows me to put my police resources ... to what I consider a higher priority."
Other provisions of the settlement include: eliminating all private rooms and areas in the clubs; ensuring the clubs don't hire dancers represented by someone who speaks or acts on their behalf; and not hiring people who have been convicted of drug or prostitution charges within 60 months of their proposed hiring.
Houston City Attorney David Feldman said the agreement will give Houston police an opportunity to focus on what is believed to be the more than 100 "rogue clubs" that operate under the radar and "are the real hub of the criminal activity and, we believe, the trafficking."
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