Police officers in Honolulu, Hawaii, have come out in defense of an exemption in state law that allows undercover officers to have sex with prostitutes, arguing that they need it as legal protection to catch lawbreakers in the act.
A group of critics of the exemption, including other police officers and human trafficking experts, are arguing that the exemption is unnecessary and could lead to further victimization of sex workers, according to an Associated Press report.
"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 Derek Marsh, an expert who trains California police in best practices on human trafficking cases.
There are no records on the usage of the exemption by Hawaii officers, but they have asked lawmakers to keep it and assured legislators that internal policies would be in place to ensure that it is not abused.
In an effort to crack down on prostitution, legislators in Hawaii crafted HB 1926 that removed the exemption for officers on the job. After police testimony, however, the exemption was restored and the state House passed the amendment.
"The procedures and conduct of the undercover officers are regulated by department rules, which by nature have to be confidential," Honolulu Police Maj. Jerry Inouye told the House Judiciary Committee. "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."
The Senate committee is slated to evaluate the bill on Friday. It proposes to increase penalties on johns and pimps while keeping prostitution as a petty misdemeanor.
Democratic state Rep. Karl Rhoads, the committee chairman, said police testimony convinced him to amend the proposal.
"It's a really murky area," said Rhoads, who represents a district that includes Honolulu's Chinatown, a longstanding epicenter of street prostitution. "I was reluctant to interfere in something that they face all the time. 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.'"