Honolulu police officers have urged lawmakers to keep an exemption in state law that allows undercover officers to have sex with prostitutes during investigations, touching off a heated debate.
Authorities say they need the legal protection to catch lawbreakers in the act. Critics, including human trafficking experts and other police, say it’s unnecessary and could further victimize sex workers, many of whom have been forced into the trade.
Police haven’t said how often — or even if — they use the provision. And when they asked legislators to preserve it, they made assurances that internal policies and procedures are in place to prevent officers from taking advantage of it.
But expert Derek Marsh says the exemption is “antiquated at best” and that police can easily do without it.
“It doesn’t help your case, and at worst you further traumatize someone. And do you think he or she is going to trust a cop again?” asked Marsh, who trains California police in best practices on human trafficking cases and twice has testified to Congress about the issue.
A Hawaii bill cracking down on prostitution (HB 1926) was originally written to scrap the sex exemption for officers on duty. It was amended to restore that protection after police testimony. The revised proposal passed the state House and will go before a Senate committee Friday.
It’s not immediately clear whether similar provisions are in place elsewhere as state law or department policy. But advocates were shocked that Hawaii exempts police from its prostitution laws, suggesting it’s an invitation for misconduct.
“Police abuse is part of the life of prostitution,” said Melissa Farley, the executive director of the San Francisco-based group Prostitution Research and Education. Farley said that in places without such police protections “women who have escaped prostitution” commonly report being coerced into giving police sexual favors to keep from being arrested.
The Hawaii bill aims to ratchet up penalties on johns and pimps. Selling sex would remain a petty misdemeanor.
During recent testimony, Honolulu police said the sex exemption protects investigations and should remain in place.