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Originally published October 24, 2006 at 12:00 AM | Page modified October 24, 2006 at 11:06 AM

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Election 2006

Crime part of debate over strip-club rules

Club owners' attempt to overturn a strict new ordinance has prompted discussion of the crimes committed in and around their establishments.

Seattle Times staff reporter

To see Seattle's official disdain for its few strip clubs, you need only read the so-called "four-foot rule" passed by the City Council last year to restrict contact between dancers and customers.

The ordinance declares such clubs as "historically and regularly" tied to ills including "prostitution, narcotics and liquor law violations, breaches of the peace, assaults, sexual conduct between customers and entertainers, and the opportunity for the spread of sexually-transmitted diseases."

Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels has even said the clubs are linked to organized crime.

But city leaders have offered little in the way of proof for their most damning allegations. The city did not study local clubs to see whether they cause significant crime in surrounding neighborhoods. Instead, officials cited research from other cities that found neighborhoods with strip clubs tend to have higher crime rates.

Seattle police statistics show plenty of busts for violations of erotic-dance rules inside clubs, but not for prostitution or other more serious crimes.

Seattle Referendum 1


What is it?

A "no" vote would overturn strip-club rules approved last year by the Seattle City Council. A "yes" vote would keep the rules.

What are the new rules?

A minimum of four feet between dancers and customers; a ban on direct tipping; brighter lights inside clubs; announced visits by city inspectors; no dances in private rooms or other areas not visible from all public areas inside clubs.

Who is behind it?

Seattle's strip clubs have raised more than $865,000 for the "no" campaign. The "yes" campaign, run by a few strip-club neighbors, has raised no money.

The crime issue has surfaced as Seattle strip-club owners run a referendum campaign to overturn the new ordinance, which is not being enforced pending the outcome of the Nov. 7 election. The ordinance places many new restrictions on clubs, including that dancers remain at least four feet from customers. A "no" vote on Seattle Referendum 1 would reject the new law.

The four-foot rule was not a response to any crime wave at clubs. Rather, it was proposed by Nickels after a judge declared the city's 17-year moratorium on new clubs illegal. Putting four feet between dancers and customers was meant to discourage new clubs from opening.

Crime inside clubs

Most of the police attention to strip clubs in recent years has focused on violations of Seattle's rules prohibiting indecent exposure and sexual contact between dancers and customers.

City prosecutors have filed more than 400 misdemeanor charges against dancers since 2001, according to records provided by Seattle City Attorney Tom Carr's office. Only about 40 of those charges led to guilty verdicts or pleas.

In such cases, women facing multiple charges often plead to just one offense, prosecutors say. Many times, charges against women with no criminal history are dismissed if they pay a small fine and stay out of trouble for 90 days.

The city has suspended the licenses of 114 dancers since 2002 for violations of the adult-entertainer rules (23 of those suspensions were reversed on appeal).

Local dancers work like independent contractors. They pay $100 or more per shift to work and must earn tips to make money. Erotic lap dances, not dances up on the stage, are the most lucrative source of tips.

Police who have worked the strip-club beat say they find illegal sexual activity almost any time they check.

Although dancers are not supposed to fondle customers or allow themselves to be fondled, they frequently do, cops say. Some Web sites asking users to rate strip clubs mention Rick's in Lake City as a place to get lap dances that include illegal sexual contact.

Gil Levy, an attorney for Rick's and its owner Frank Colacurcio Jr., said, "I know that my clients, through the management, do what they can do to discourage illegal behavior." Levy also has represented other Colacurcio-owned clubs including Sugar's in Shoreline.

Deputy Police Chief Clark Kimerer said proving cases against dancers and clubs can be difficult and time-consuming. To make arrests, police go undercover and pay for lap dances or observe activity elsewhere in the club. Enforcement has dropped off in recent years because the seven detectives in the vice unit have focused more on street prostitution.

Despite the assertions in its new ordinance, the city has offered no proof that local clubs are associated with more-serious crimes, such as prostitution.

Jack Burns, an attorney for the downtown Déjà Vu strip club, pointed out that about 200 police incident reports were reviewed by the City Council as part of its deliberations on the four-foot rule. All but one centered on violations of dance rules. None involved prostitution.

Kimerer said crime associated with clubs might be understated because victims are reluctant to contact police.

"There are no complainants out of fear or need to maintain livelihoods and a network that watches the police as closely as we would want to watch them," Kimerer said. "It is one of the most difficult places I know to enforce the law because you are going into their world."

Kimerer said the new ordinance requiring a four-foot separation between dancers and customers would make it easier for officers to spot illicit behavior.

Many other cities in the area have similar restrictions, including Shoreline, Bellevue and Tukwila. The rules have caused a drop in business and prompted some strip clubs to shut down.

"Dancers make their living dancing close. If they can't dance close, they can't make a living. It puts them in a position to either not be able to make the living or break the law," said Levy.

Last month at Sugar's, 13 strippers and two managers were arrested after an undercover sting operation. The adult dancers were charged with violating Shoreline's four-foot rule. Two also were charged with prostitution after police said they agreed to perform sex acts for $100 and $150. A 16-year-old who got a dancer's license from the city of Shoreline despite being under age was referred to the county prosecutor's juvenile division for possible charges.

Crime outside the clubs

It is more difficult to measure whether strip clubs contribute significantly to crime in the surrounding neighborhoods.

A leading researcher on the subject points to at least 20 studies reporting some link between strip clubs and increased rates of crime in neighborhoods.

"A club doesn't have to have that effect, but it just so happens that a lot of them do," said Richard McCleary, a professor of criminology, planning and environmental health sciences at the University of California at Irvine, whose research is often enlisted by cities to justify adult-entertainment regulations.

Some studies have found negative effects to be worse if many clubs are clustered together.

Strip-club owners, who are spending close to $1 million on their referendum campaign, released their own study earlier this month. The study, done by researchers frequently hired by adult-entertainment businesses, used eight years of police-department data to argue that strip clubs are no more of a neighborhood nuisance than some nearby bars or even mini-marts.

Consultants and researchers hired by adult-entertainment groups say studies linking strip clubs to crime often fail to take into account that clubs are forced to locate in seedy neighborhoods. Other studies, which attempt to show that property values are hurt by adult-entertainment businesses, have relied on opinion surveys of appraisers instead of actual data about property values.

"I have found a couple instances where a couple clubs were problematic. They were badly managed," said Bruce McLaughlin, a California land-use consultant who works primarily for adult-entertainment businesses fighting city regulations.

Seattle's four strip clubs have attracted attention in recent years due primarily to Rick's and its owners, who were linked to a campaign-contribution scandal in 2003.

Club owner Colacurcio Jr., and his father, Frank Colacurcio Sr., were accused of funneling illegal campaign contributions through straw donors to three then-Seattle City Council members in the 2003 elections.

Criminal charges were filed against both Colacurcios and two associates but were dismissed this year by a King County Superior Court judge who ruled state campaign-finance laws don't allow for criminal penalties in such cases. Prosecutors are appealing the ruling.

Nickels referred to that controversy when he derided local strip clubs as linked to "organized crime" during a television call-in show this summer.

Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or jbrunner@seattletimes.com

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