Raids on eight French Quarter strip clubs that were touted as an effort to curb human trafficking have not yielded any arrests, and officials have not provided any public evidence of that activity, but the New Orleans Police Department and the state Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control said Monday that this month's raids uncovered multiple instances of prostitution, drug use and “lewd acts” at the clubs.
The allegations led the state agency to pull the clubs' liquor licenses, ATC Commissioner Juana Marine-Lombard said at a news conference.
The suspensions come on the eve of Carnival, a particularly busy time for the clubs and the city's hospitality industry as a whole. They also come a week before hearings begin in federal court on the constitutionality of a state ban on employing strippers under the age of 21.
Critics said the timing raised questions about whether the raids were really aimed at providing ammunition for those looking to close the clubs, an effort that also includes a proposal to limit the number of clubs allowed to operate in the Vieux Carre.
NOPD Superintendent Michael Harrison said Monday that the investigation had been ongoing for months and that the raids were not scheduled based on the upcoming tourist season.
So far, the spurt of enforcement activity has not yielded any arrests directly related to the alleged violations, though two people were booked on unrelated outstanding warrants.
Harrison said, “There will be charges that will be forthcoming against individuals for prostitution and drug violations.”
During Monday’s news conference by Harrison and Marine-Lombard, which was billed as presenting the “results of a joint human trafficking operation,” officials repeatedly returned to that theme.
“The reason for this was to end human trafficking in New Orleans, and this is our first step,” Harrison said.
“If anyone chooses to create victims because of the profit they make because of human trafficking, we’re coming for them,” he added.
But so far, there are no specific charges of human trafficking, and police have not made public any evidence of such activity. Harrison said police are continuing to look into that aspect of the operation.
That leaves the clubs facing a series of allegations of administrative violations, which will come up for hearings next week.
The raids turned up more than 70 violations, including 30 cases of prostitution, Marine-Lombard said.
Eight strip clubs on or near Bourbon Street had their liquor licenses pulled over the past two weeks: Scores, Dixie Divas, Stilettos, Rick's Sporting Saloon, Temptations, Larry Flynt's Hustler Barely Legal, Hunk Oasis and Rick's Cabaret.
Each of those clubs is accused of multiple violations, Marine-Lombard said.
Several of the clubs were also cited for similar violations and temporarily shut down during the last large-scale sting on French Quarter strip clubs in 2016.
All of those clubs are accused of allowing prostitution on their property except for Hunk Oasis, whose dancers are men, according to the violation notices served on the clubs. Three of the clubs — Hunk Oasis, Stilettos and Dixie Divas — were cited after undercover officers were offered marijuana, and Rick’s Cabaret was cited after an undercover officer was offered cocaine, authorities said.
The remainder of the allegations involve “lewd acts,” most of which are hardly a surprise to find in a strip club. Officers cited the clubs for allowing employees to walk around topless while not on stage, for fondling themselves or others, and in some cases for exposing their genitals.
Those offenses are technically banned by state law, though the regulations are rarely enforced.
And, advocates for the strip club employees said, the sudden use of rarely enforced regulations leaves dancers unclear on what the rules are and does little to protect their safety.
“Looking for violations for nipple exposure, whether on stage or offstage, is no way to find out whether sex trafficking is occurring, and it's not an indication that solicitation or drug dealing is occurring in a club,” said Michelle Rutherford, an attorney who works with BARE, the Bourbon Alliance of Responsible Entertainers, an advocacy group made up of strippers and their allies. “It’s over-enforcement at its worst.”
And the timing of the closures is likely to hurt those who work in the industry, others with the group argued.
“These tactics harm workers, distress citizens and visitors, and ultimately undermine supposed ‘anti-trafficking’ measures,” said Lyn Archer, a founding member of BARE.