Police car on road at night (blurred motion)

Melanie Smith’s online advertisements promise clients “an array of services” guaranteed to “fulfill your needs, wants and desires.”

But the 24-year-old  escort insists she offers men companionship — not sex — for banquets and weekend getaways.

“I’m arm candy,” she said.

Smith and any of her perfectly legal co-workers intending to do business in La Crosse would need a license under an ordinance being considered by city officials.

The new law would require escorts, dancers and some kinds of massage practitioners to obtain licenses for a fee.

Police contend the license could deter prostitution while generating revenue for a cash-strapped city. “The city requires cab drivers and bartenders to obtain a license,” La Crosse Police Assistant Chief Rob Abraham said. “It seems reasonable we should regulate this industry also.”

The concept mirrors programs in other Wisconsin municipalities that require a license for anyone who accompanies someone for a fee. Same goes for those offering private dances and massages.

Police want one thing to be clear: The ordinance won’t legalize prostitution. Anyone exchanging sex for money faces criminal charges.

Escorts and dancers advertising work in La Crosse — and there is no shortage of them — teeter on prostitution. They offer “pleasure” and “full body pampering” with semi-nude photographs.

One website had 31 ads for La Crosse escorts posted in just the past week.

“This type of activity sometimes tries to guise as prostitution,” Abraham said. “We know through informants or tips these escorts aren’t doing legal escort activity.”

But proving a prostitution deal can be tricky. Proving someone doesn’t have a license isn’t.

“As soon as they open the door, they’re in violation,” said Jim Adlam, a police captain in Brookfield, a southeastern Wisconsin city that enacted an escort-license ordinance in 1991.

At least seven people have been arrested for prostitution in La Crosse County since 2009. An accused local pimp, 50-year-old Steven Cathey, will be tried for six felonies next month.

La Crosse police stress the local license is in its infancy and details still are being developed. Reputable massage therapists will be exempt because they require a state license. The La Crosse Common Council will vote on the measure later this year.

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Similar ordinances elsewhere require applicants to submit fingerprints and photographs and pass a criminal history background check.

No one has ever applied for the license, which requires a hefty $250 fee, since Brookfield passed the ordinance two decades ago, according to the city clerk’s office.

But police there each year cite about 10 unlicensed escorts, most nabbed during stings, veteran municipal prosecutor Joe Kershek said.

Most offenders are women who don’t live in Wisconsin. Two of them were in court Monday for the $2,500 citation.

“I tell them, ‘You’ve been given an unbelievable deal in life. This is really prostitution,’” Brookfield Municipal Judge Jeffrey Warchol said. “I tell them, ‘Get the heck out of Brookfield. Get out of Wisconsin for all I care. Or better yet, turn around your life.’”

The offenders always plead guilty to avoid a trial. But collecting the fine, usually reduced by half in a deal, can be difficult because the women aren’t local, the judge said.

Brookfield police contend the ordinance is working to combat a prostitution problem that’s made worse by the city’s proximity to the Interstate and high number of hotels.

“We’ve never had a repeat customer,” Adlam points out. “Brookfield is known to escorts to stay away.”

Green Bay adopted the escort license requirement in 1996. Only one woman has applied, but a city committee denied the license because she had a criminal history and didn’t meet the requirements, according to the committee’s minutes.

Unlicensed escorts there are fined up to $6,351. Police cite two and six people annually, assistant city attorney Kail Decker said.

“The type of activity associated with an escort license tends to be a precursor to prostitution,” he said.

One woman applied for the license in Pewaukee, Wis., in 2007 but also was rejected because she had a pending criminal case, city clerk Kelly Tarczewski said.

“Other than that, I can’t remember the last time we had an inquiry,” she said.

Law enforcement there know escorts are ignoring the law. Since 2006, they’ve given 102 of them a ticket, Pewaukee Municipal Court Administrator Barb Vick said.

“We wish people would follow the ordinance,” Waukesha County Sheriff’s Lt. Neil Dussault said. “But people choose to go around the system because they know deep down what they’re doing is wrong.”

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