Police in Hawaii are fighting to defend an exemption in a the state's prostitution law that allows undercover officers to have sex with the sex workers they're targeting in an investigation.
Testifying in support of the exemption, Honolulu Police Maj. Jerry Inouye said the policy is necessary for investigations, though police will not disclose if and how often it has been invoked. "Because if prostitution suspects, pimps and other people are privy to that information, they're going to know exactly how far the undercover officer can and cannot go," he told the House Judiciary Committee.
When questioned about the potential for police abuse of sex workers, the Honolulu police department insisted that it has protocols in place to regulate itself. "All allegations of misconduct are investigated and the appropriate disciplinary action taken," Michelle Yu, Honolulu police spokeswoman, commented to the Associated Press in an email. But, as the AP notes, the disclosure laws for police misconduct in Hawaii make it "impossible to know if an on-duty officer had faced discipline or accusations of having sex with a prostitute."
Advocates, lawmakers and law enforcement officials have criticized the law, calling it unnecessary and exploitative. Derek Marsh, who trains California police in best practices on human trafficking cases, called the exemption "antiquated at best."
The law "doesn't help your case, and at worst you further traumatize someone," he told the AP. "And do you think he or she is going to trust a cop again?"
But not all people in the sex industry are victims of trafficking, and the Hawaii law jeopardizes their lives and livelihoods, too. The reality of sex work is that it is work; the people who do it should be free from harassment, coercion and violence -- including from law enforcement.
Police abuse of sex workers is a well documented occurrence, as the AP notes:
In Philadelphia, a former officer is on trial facing charges of raping two prostitutes after forcing them at gunpoint to take narcotics. A former West Sacramento, Calif., officer is awaiting sentencing after being found guilty of raping prostitutes in his police cruiser while on patrol. And last year in Massachusetts, a former police officer pleaded guilty to extorting sex from prostitutes he threatened with arrest.
The Hawaii exemption for undercover cops is part of a measure intended to "crack down" on prostitution, but policies that lead to more arrests of sex workers hurt rather than help, advocates say. As Kate Mogulescu, the supervising attorney of a project at the Legal Aid Society that represents people arrested in New York City on prostitution charges, wrote recently in the New York Times, "I know firsthand the devastating consequences that aggressive arrest practices can have for both trafficked and nontrafficked people engaging in prostitution.
"Many, but not all, of our clients are, in fact, trafficked, and many more have survived an extensive amount of brutality, violence and trauma," she explained. "Turning them into defendants and pushing them through the criminal justice system contradicts any claim of assistance."
Melissa Gira Grant, an author and journalist who has written extensively about sex workers' rights, also addressed the dangers of aggressive policing in a recent piece for Salon: "Police might be careful now to say they treat the women they arrest as 'victims'" -- the Hawaii law carries a lesser penalty for sex workers than for johns -- "but these women are still stopped and searched, handcuffed and detained. They are fed into a legal system that could separate them from their families, homes and livelihood."
The Hawaii exemption is currently being debated in the state Legislature, but some lawmakers seem inclined to let the police call the shots on the matter.
Democratic state Rep. Karl Rhoads called it a "murky area."
"I was reluctant to interfere in something that they face all the time," he told the AP. "If they think it's necessary to not have it in the statute, this is one area where I did defer to them and say, 'I hope you're not having sex with prostitutes.'"