In the 1970s, a law was enacted in Hawaii to protect policemen from prosecution for taking part in undercover prostitution stings. This law pretty much made it legal for cops to get down with sex workers before arresting them. As part of a measure to decrease violence against people coerced into sex work, the recent House Bill 1926 — which increased penalties for pimps and patrons of sex workers — would have nixed that exemption, but the Honolulu Police Department refused.
Police Major Jerry Inouye offered testimony before the House Judiciary Committee, arguing for the right of Hawaiian cops to have sex with sex workers before they arrested them. “The procedures and conduct of the undercover officers are regulated by department rules,” he assured them. But he wouldn’t tell them what these procedures and department rules were 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.”
Most lawmakers mostly shrugged. “I was reluctant to interfere in something that they face all the time,” said Representative Karl Rhoads, a Democrat. “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.'” Translation: I dunno. Do what you gotta do, just don’t let get headlines so I have to deal with the fallout. The new law, which also made selling dominance and submission services a form of prostitution, passed the committee and later, the state House. The revised bill is heading to the Senate Judiciary Committee this Friday.
Considering the bill was introduced to “help” victims of trafficking and coercion, this is a major set back — then again, don’t all such savior attempts that heavily rely on law enforcement always go something like this? Statements made by the original bill supporters reeked of the sort of problematic savior language that does nothing to reduce harm for sex workers. For instance, talking to KITV4, Kathryn Xian, executive director of the Pacific Alliance to Stop Slavery, said, “the reason why this law is on the law books is because of age old, very archaic beliefs about prostitution being a victimless crime and there are no victims in prostitution.”
Melissa Farley, the executive director of the San Francisco-based group Prostitution Research and Education, said it best when she noted, “Police abuse is part of the life of prostitution.” The more exemptions police are given, the higher the risk of abuse for marginalized populations. There needs to be a check in place to balance the power. In the U.S., as things stand now, there isn’t. And in Hawaii, this exemption makes the police department a danger to all sex workers, not only those who have been coerced into the trade.
In the state of Hawaii, disclosure laws for police misconduct bar anyone from access to information about disciplinary actions and accusations of misconduct.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Clayton Hee, also a Democrat, has promised to ensure the exemption doesn’t make it into the final law.
“I will tell you that without question I can’t imagine police officers being exempt from the law,” Hee said. “To condone police officers’ sexual penetration [with a sex worker] in making arrests is simply nonsensical to me.”
UPDATE: The Honolulu Police Department has given up on its much-loved exemption. It helps when making decisions to listen to sex worker experiences instead of just police. Shocking, I’m sure. After the Senate Judiciary Committee heard accounts of sex workers being raped before getting arrested, they struck the exemption down fast. The politicians in the House were beside themselves, “but — but — but — no one told us there were abuses!” they blustered. Mad backtracking from the police department, too, which absolutely no one should believe. It’s unknown when lawmakers will vote to enact the law, but we should see something on the books by May.
Header image by boaski.