After fighting to retain their “right” to have sex with prostitutes while investigating them, Hawaiian police graciously agreed last month to drop their objection to…not being allowed to commit the same “crime” they’re arresting others for.
This change of heart came after police lobbied to keep this exemption, arguing that it was necessary to prevent prostitutes from knowing what officers could and could not do during the course of an undercover investigation. As ridiculous as that reasoning is, the Hawaii House Judiciary Committee was convinced and agreed to cut a stipulation from an anti-prostitution bill that would remove the sex exemption for on-duty officers. Luckily, increased media coverage and heated debates with motivated lawmakers and the police to reach the conclusion that the exception wasn’t really necessary after all.
As far as I’m concerned, this revelation should be filed under “no shit, Sherlock!” and it’s infuriating that anyone claiming to be public servant would argue in favor of the exception. First of all, while there is a difference between consenting sex workers and coerced sex slaves, the distinction isn’t always obvious, and in the interest of conducting a thorough investigation, officers who employed this exception could have easily contributed to the further victimization of trafficked victims. And even if the target of an undercover investigation is an actual prostitute, the hypocrisy of allowing the police to have sex as a component of their job while arresting others for having sex as a component of their job is almost tragically comical.
Let’s be clear—this was an awful provision and it’s great that lobbying efforts, media attention and public pressure forced legislators to remove it so that officers in Hawaii can no longer use that caveat to legally abuse people in the sex industry. But the fact that the police at first lobbied successfully to retain this sick privilege should have all of use second-guessing our faith in police and lawmakers.
As I’ve said before, law enforcement officers are not in the business of de-escalation, and though instances of abuse are often reported, society’s collective tendency to rely on and trust the police reinforces the notion that cops can be held to different moral standards than the rest of us.
In some instances, this is (seemingly) logical. Giving the police a huge benefit of the doubt and assuming all or most officers are well-intentioned and mentally stable, it’s intuitive to grant them increased leeway regarding self-defense and the presumption of innocence when they need to use lethal force. Likewise, when we see an officer breaking traffic laws, we can (if we’re feeling generous) assume they’re on their way to help someone or prevent a crime.
But the allowances that come with being a police officer have exceeded necessary exemptions and are now often just expected bonuses. On the small scale, this could simply involve officers expecting discounts or free food and drinks at dining establishments, but the expectation of special treatment—sometimes at the expense of ordinary citizens—goes much further. Consider civil forfeiture, an accepted practice in which the police can seize a person’s property, whether they’re charged with a crime or not, and spend the proceeds from selling the property on luxuries, such vacations and new cars.
What’s more, the police have come to feel entitled to these incidentals and fight for them when they come under threat, either by working around the system or lobbying to keep their perks legally intact, as Hawaiian police initially did. And even when their arguments are flimsy, they’re often able to rely on the mythology of the hero cop to establish ethos and maintain the status quo. When officers in Hawaii balked at the idea of removing the exception provision, Democratic state representative and committee chairman Karl Rhodes changed his position and said that if officers think the provision is necessary, he would defer to their judgment. And so the bill passed the House with the exception intact.
The unfortunate fact of the matter is that we can’t defer to law enforcement to use their discretion when interacting with the public; there have been enough instances that show this discretion can be abused and when it is, the results are disastrous. Likewise, the continued legal tendency to treat prostitutes and other non-violent lawbreakers as criminals allows officers to victimize people who are often most in need help and protection.