As a tourism mecca and with its history of importing agricultural workers, concern about human trafficking in Hawaii has run high in recent years.

We’ve seen accusations against Maui Land and Pineapple and the botched prosecution of the owners of Aloun Farms on Oahu. This year, the nation’s largest human trafficking case ever will be prosecuted in Honolulu.

The issue surfaced prominently when Civil Beat launched in May 2010. That spring saw the Hawaii Legislature unanimously pass human trafficking legislation that was uniformly opposed by law enforcement and ultimately vetoed by Gov. Linda Lingle.

We decided then to make human trafficking in Hawaii a coverage focus, and Assistant Editor Sara Lin and other reporters began investigating the issue. To say it wasn’t easy is an understatement. While we could cover labor trafficking by following trials, we found an almost total lack of cooperation from the Honolulu Police Department when it came to trying to understand sex trafficking.

First we asked the department for a year’s worth of arrest reports, but we got the run around. So we decided to build our own database of prostitution arrests in Honolulu using the police blotter, a document the department is required by law to make public.

A number of fits and starts gathering arrest information helped deepen our understanding of the different prostitution charges police use. The department wouldn’t explain anything about its work. Finally, in Feburary 2011, we began regular visits to police headquarters to review the blotter and gather data. It took us a year, with Robert Brown and Nanea Kalani doing the bulk of the work, to build the database that is the basis for the special report by Sara that begins today.

What we could learn from the blotter was name, date, time of arrest, suspect’s address, sex and age of suspect, charge, arrest location and the name of the arresting officer.

We think today, as we thought more than a year ago, that sex trafficking is a form of human slavery, something unconscionable in this day and age. We began our work with the question, how big is the problem here.

As the series unfolds, I believe you’ll find the first independent and authoritative review of how the Honolulu Police Department enforces — or doesn’t enforce — Hawaii’s prostitution laws.

Based on the work of Honolulu police over one year, either sex trafficking doesn’t exist on Oahu or officers aren’t looking hard enough. (More on that on Day 4 of the series.)

Ultimately, the work by Civil Beat’s reporters raises a number of new questions:

We believe this work is an important contribution to understanding how the Honolulu Police Department enforces laws on Oahu, something the department continues to resist discussing publicly.

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