The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

About that law letting police in Hawaii have sex with prostitutes

A pedestrian walks by a Honolulu Police Department station on Wednesday. (AP Photo/Oskar Garcia)
Placeholder while article actions load

Today in stories that seem like they came out of Florida, as in we double-checked the dateline twice to be 100 percent sure this story really, truly came out of a state that is not Florida, we bring you news about police in Hawaii and prostitutes.

State law in Hawaii currently lets police have sex with prostitutes during investigations. Lawmakers had considered getting rid of the exemption, but after Honolulu police testified that they needed it for investigations, the bill was amended to keep the rule in place.

Police said during their testimony that officers weren’t abusing their authority or taking advantage of people, saying that there are strict internal controls in place, according to the Associated Press. (They did not say how often officers have ever actually had sex with a prostitute during an investigation.) But people opposed to the exemption still note the potential for abuse.

The subject is getting a lot of attention for obvious reasons. The New York Daily News, for example, went with the “Hawaii five-OH!” headline, which is definitely a funny joke people should keep making.

But it’s worth remembering that there are some recent examples of police officers being accused or convicted of sexually abusing prostitutes: A former officer in Philadelphia has been charged with raping two women identified as prostitutes; a former officer in Lowell, Mass., pleaded guilty last year to threatening prostitutes to force them to have sex; and a Houston police officer was sentenced to six years in prison for raping a prostitute in 2010.

Meanwhile, prostitution seems to account for an infinitesimal portion of the Honolulu Police Department’s arrests. Honolulu police made 284 prostitution arrests in 2012 (the last year for which statistics were available), just 0.7 percent of the 36,757 arrests made that year. It was the same percentage a year earlier, so it’s not like there’s evidence of some increasing epidemic.

Prostitution similarly accounts for a very small percentage of the arrests made that same year in cities with similar-sized populations. In Tampa, police made 336 arrests for prostitution out of 50,874 total arrests, or about 0.6 percent. In Pittsburgh, prostitution accounted for 298 arrests out of the overall 17,772 arrests, or 1.6 percent.

It’s not just cities of this size, either. Take Chicago, where the population is much, much larger and police make many more arrests. Prostitution still accounts for a small share: Just 2,404 of the 167,541 arrests made in 2010 (the most recent year with available numbers) were for prostitution, or 1.4 percent.

A report on prostitution written by Anaheim police Lt. Steve Marcin and published last year by the Federal Bureau of Investigation looked at a different way to approach prostitution. It noted that the response to street prostitution has generally involved police officers pretending to be customers before making arrests:

The standard procedure was for undercover officers to pose as customers, obtain a solicitation, and arrest the prostitute. They repeated the process often to incarcerate as many women as possible. These tactics resulted in misdemeanor filings and a temporary relocation of the activity. Prostitution soon returned.

Marcin wrote about a new approach taken by the Anaheim police that instead focused on rescuing women from pimps and helping them connect with victim advocacy groups so they can get shelter, counseling and job training. This approach “meant considering prostitutes as potential victims and identifying pimps as suspects,” rather than merely arresting prostitutes over and over again, he wrote.

The Anaheim Police Department reports that the new approach has resulted in more than 380 women being offered counseling, job placement and an avenue away from prostitution.

This post has been updated with the correct percentages, because I live to disappoint my high school math teacher, I guess.