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 can 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. But 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 their jobs 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 was originally written to do away with the sex exemption for officers on duty, but it was amended to restore that protection after police testimony. The revised proposal has passed the state House and will go before a Senate committee Friday.
It’s not immediately clear whether there are similar provisions in place elsewhere either at the state law or department policy level. But advocates were shocked that Hawaii provides an exemption to prostitution laws for police, suggesting it’s an invitation for misconduct.