Mesa has learned over the years that it is not immune from the sex subculture, despite its family-oriented identity.

Mesa has passed a tough new ordinance to regulate escort services, giving police a way to make arrests for failure to obtain a license, without having to prove a sex act occurred.

Officials acknowledge they are trying to deter escort services, which can function as a front for prostitution and human trafficking of young women, from advertising and operating in Mesa.

But the primary hope is that the ordinance will help police identify young women working in the escort industry so they can help them choose a better life.

“Arrests aren’t our primary objective. Intervention is our primary objective,” said Commander Tom Intrieri, of the Special Operations Division. “The ones that are being trafficked, we would try to gain their confidence and offer them resources to get out of the industry.”

Mesa police have a long history of targeting the sex industry. In the latest undercover investigation in December, detective posed as 13- and 14-year-old girls on sexual explicit website. Ten suspects were arrested after they showed up at a pre-arranged address expecting to have sex.

Police dubbed the investigation “Operation Home Schooled” and used tactics that they have used regularly over the last few years.

“Each year, the Mesa Police Department conducts operations of this type in a continuous effort to remove these predators from our community. Suspects willing to solicit sex acts with children are some of the most dangerous criminals in our society,” Detective Steve Berry, a Mesa police spokesman, wrote in press release.

The landscape has changed dramatically from 20 years ago, when Mesa police used to work Main Street, identifying prostitutes and arresting them, Intrieri said.

But like other forms of organized crime, the sex business has gone online, as Operation Home Schooled demonstrates, advertising on certain websites.

“They are not walking the street anymore. They are sitting behind a computer or using a smartphone,” he said.

John Pombier, a Mesa assistant city manager and former city prosecutor, said Mesa wants to train officers in how to deal more effectively with women involved in human trafficking.

"It's not to put them in jail, it's to get them help,” Pombier said.

Outgoing Vice Mayor Alex Finter said it became obvious that Mesa ordinances needed more severe consequences. He said several other cities in the region toughened their ordinances and Mesa needed to keep pace as more escort services started operating in the East Valley.

“They go to the path of least resistance,” Finter said. “It was moving to the East Valley.”

He said Mesa hopes to convince escort services to stay out of the city with the tough ordinance.

“It’s a discouragement. It’s an ability to identify criminal organizations,” Finter said.

The new ordinance, unanimously passed by the outgoing Mesa City Council at its last meeting on Monday, prohibits an escort service or individual escorts from advertising or working in Mesa without a license.

Police anticipate few applications. A fee of about $200 would be charged for an escort or an escort assistant, and about $420 for an escort bureau, according to a city council report.

Applicants would be required to disclose 10 years of employment history, 10 years of regulatory history and all misdemeanor and felony convictions during the past 10 years. Mesa police would review the applicant’s criminal history and make a recommendation on whether a license should be granted.

If someone were to obtain a license, violations would be treated harshly, with a $500 fine for the first offense, $1,000 for a second offense and $1,500 for a third offense.

Escorts would be barred from performing sex acts of all types. No one working for an escort service could be less than 18 years old.

Mesa has learned over the years that it is not immune from the sex subculture, despite its family-oriented identity. In Project Blue Heat, police announced in August 2015 that they had arrested seven suspects on prostitution charges and rescued two underage girls, one from Arizona and another from California, who were human trafficking victims.

Other investigations have included stings similar to Operation Home Schooled, where the suspects ranged in age from 66 to 23. Suspects were arrested on suspicion of charges including attempted sexual conduct with a minor, luring a minor for sex, and failure to carry a sex offender identification card.

Reach Jim Walsh at 480-898-5639 or at jwalsh@timespublications.com.

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