Debate is raging in Hawaii over a controversial law that permits undercover officers to have sex with sex workers during police operations.
The debate over the law started over a recent bill that attempted to do away with the sex exemption for officers, but it was amended to restore the measure after police testified for lawmakers. According to a report by the Associated Press in The New York Times, police officials say the law is vital in helping them catch people breaking the law in the act.
Critics, rightfully so, are outraged and say the measure further victimizes people in sex trafficking rings or those who may have been forced into prostitution by abusers and others. There are also serious concerns about potential abuses:
"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 or harassed.
Critics say the police perspective is off base. Lauren Hersh, a former prosecuting attorney who runs the global trafficking program of the women's advocacy group Equality Now, said the risk of re-victimizing a sex worker, who may already have been trafficked, should make sex during an investigation off-limits.
"I can understand you're in a drug den, and you have a gun to your head and someone says 'snort this,'" Hersh said, acknowledging the gray areas associated with undercover police work. But the sex exemption in Hawaii is "so dissimilar from that circumstance on so many levels."
The law even has critics inside the law enforcement community crying foul, according to the A.P.
Skeptics, such as Roger Young, a retired special agent who for more than 20 years worked sex crimes for the FBI from Las Vegas and has trained vice squads around the country, remain unconvinced.
Young said Thursday, "I don't know of any state or federal law that allows any law enforcement officer undercover to penetrate or do what this law is allowing."
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.
Police officials, such as Major Jerry Inouye who testified before the House Judiciary Committee say they need the exemption because suspects are too familiar with how far undercover cops can and can't go in during sting operations.
Of course, the main concern from critics is potential abuse, especially since we've already seen instances where officers have used their position of power to re-victimize women in vulnerable situations. The A.P. points out even more instances that will make you shudder:
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.
So far, police won't say how much they use this tactic and told lawmakers they have policies in place to keep their officers from abusing it. But very little information is being made available about just what those policies and internal procedures are:
"All allegations of misconduct are investigated and the appropriate disciplinary action taken," said Michelle Yu, Honolulu police spokeswoman, in an email. It's not clear, however, what the punishment would be. 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.Vice officers who investigate prostitution haven't been accused of sexual wrongdoing in recent memory, Yu said.
Even more troubling? There's already been an example in Hawaii of abuse of power—a parole officer was convicted of sexual assault against a prostitute in 2011.
Isn't one of the biggest questions here just why, exactly, Hawaii needs a exemption like this for their sex sting operations and none of the other law enforcement agencies in other states need one? They seem to be able to bust prostitutes and pimps in other states just fine without allowing their officers to engage in sexual acts in other places.
Actually, there's a lot of questions raised by this. As addressed by critics mentioned above, what policies are in place to prevent officers from using this exemption to have sex with people who are being forced into this lifestyle? (Is that even a consideration or concern for Hawaii law enforcement?) How exactly would they even know what someone's situation is before the bust them? And what about underage sex workers? If a young girl is working as prostitute, what's to stop an undercover from engaging in a sexual act with her under this exemption? Hawaii, do you really want your police officers having sex with underage people just so you can increase a few crime fighting stats on a spreadsheet somewhere? Is that what we've come to in this country? Excuse me while I throw up the proverbial "give me a freaking break!"
The revised proposal has passed the state House and will go before a Senate committee Friday. Hopefully, lawmakers will come to their senses by then.
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