Call it “The McNulty Rule”

Jaw-dropping story from Honolulu:

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 could 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. And 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.

So they promise they’ll never use it. But they’d still like to have the protection. You know. Just in case.

It’s not immediately clear whether similar provisions are in place elsewhere as state law or department policy. But advocates were shocked that Hawaii exempts police from its prostitution laws, suggesting it’s an invitation for misconduct.

“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 . . .

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.'”

It seems like if there’s one area in which a policymaker shouldn’t defer to police, it’s in giving them legal cover to coerce sex from women under the threat of arrest.

I don’t think I can show you the clip from The Wire that inspired the headline. But here’s the scene that sets it up:

Radley Balko blogs about criminal justice, the drug war and civil liberties for The Washington Post. He is the author of the book "Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces."

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Radley Balko · March 21, 2014