Minneapolis police officials said Thursday that they're ending the practice of sending undercover officers to investigate suspected prostitution in massage parlors after three male officers had sexual contact with the female suspects.

Two recent cases were thrown out by Hennepin County judges and a third by the Minneapolis city attorney because of officer conduct one judge called "outrageous." During one bust, an officer can be heard in a recording moaning as he allows the female masseuse to touch his genitals as part of a naked "body-to-body" massage.

"The Minneapolis Police Department is taking immediate action by reviewing these cases," Chief Janeé Harteau said in a prepared statement. "We are no longer using undercover operations to investigate suspected prostitution in massage businesses."

Harteau said the city massage parlor licensing ordinance that went into effect in July will now be the main way to deter prostitution in those businesses "without having to build cases for criminal prosecution."

The new rules require home businesses to pay an annual licensing fee of $50 and larger massage businesses to pay $140. They also detail a variety of "unlawful acts" that could result in a citation or revoked license.

The ordinance aims to make it more difficult for prostitution rings to thrive under the guise of a massage business. Tightening up the rules for massage businesses has already led to a dramatic reduction in the time it takes to stop illegal activity, city officials say. In the past, a neighbor's tip concerning illegal activity would often leave officials with little room for recourse, short of a formal undercover investigation.

Now, a notice from the city about licensing rules has been enough to get many businesses to shut down or move.

While the department is reviewing its procedures on prostitution investigations, none of three officers involved in the rejected cases is under internal investigation.

The head of the Minneapolis police union defended the three officers on Thursday, saying that they followed department policy on general conduct for undercover officers.

"They were operating within the law and they were operating within department policy and they were doing it in response to numerous complaints they've had of illegal activity at that business," said Lt. Bob Kroll, president of the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis.

"The only way that you have successful undercover operations and arrests is if you actually portray the role of a crook," he said.

Kroll said the dismissed cases should be appealed and acknowledged that police work can sometimes be "ugly," comparing it to fast-food hamburgers, the ingredients of which people probably sometimes "don't want to see."

He was critical of the Police Department's disbanding several years ago of its vice unit. He said as a result, officers who go undercover to investigate prostitution now are precinct-based instead of working for a centralized unit, and thus their training is not as standardized or specialized.

Minneapolis police do not have a specific policy that provides guidelines on prostitution stings, but the department does provide standard rules for undercover officers.

"In order to obtain information and evidence regarding criminal activities, the department may utilize undercover officers," according to the department's policy and procedure manual.

"Such officers shall not intentionally engage in entrapment and shall not commit any act that constitutes a crime."

A supervisor is to approve and be present during all planned plainclothes or undercover details, including "controlled buys, prostitution stings, and buy busts," the manual says.

The Minnesota Board of Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST), which licenses officers in the state, does not have any model policies pertaining to prostitution details for agencies, said POST Executive Director Nathan Gove.

Close encounters

In the case of a woman charged in March with prostitution and illegal acts at a massage business, a 36-minute audio recording captured the encounter between officer Steven Lecy and the woman. She handled his genitals before he signaled for backup officers to enter the room.

In a dismissal order issued in court Tuesday, Hennepin County Judge William Fisher said probable cause for a crime could have been established long before the sexual activity began.

A second case involved officer Christopher Reiter, who was doing undercover work at a south Minneapolis parlor in November 2014 when he allowed the woman to start rubbing his genitals and then negotiated with her a price for further action "that would take care of him."

Hennepin County Judge Amy Dawson wrote in her Aug. 7 dismissal that Reiter "initiated sexual contact that isn't required for the collection of evidence to establish elements of the offense."

The third case involved the same woman, who was arrested in May after officer Abubakar Muridi asked her to rub his genitals before he negotiated a price for sex. The city attorney dismissed that case Monday.

Improper police behavior erodes trust between trafficking victims and police, said Charisma Smith, The Family Partnership's PRIDE program director (From PRostitution to Independence, Dignity & Equality).

The program provides support services to sexually exploited people and their families.

"What happened there is that [the officers] became part of the demand and the demand is what drives sex trafficking," she said Thursday. "It's a contradiction of the message that you are here to serve and protect."

nicole.norfleet@startribune.com • 612-673-4495 Twitter: @nicolenorfleet david.chanen@startribune.com • 612-673-4465