Honolulu police have built a wall of silence about their enforcement of Hawaii prostitution laws.

But a year-long Civil Beat investigation raised a number of questions that it’s time the department answer. Among them:

  • Why were there no arrests on Saturdays in the entire 12 months, starting Feb. 1, 2011, and ending Jan. 31, 2012? Why were there just two arrests on a Sunday?
  • Does the vice squad work on weekends? If so, what does it do? If not, why not?
  • Why has there been just one pimp arrested on the entire island of Oahu in each of the past two years?
  • Why are prostitution arrests declining so dramatically? By the department’s own numbers, the total dropped by more than half from 2007 to 2011.
Honolulu Police Department, main station on S. Beretania St.

Honolulu Police Department, main station on S. Beretania St.

Based on Civil Beat’s findings, it seems reasonable to conclude that Honolulu police are conducting enough arrests of johns and prostitutes to minimally disrupt the sex trade. But they’re not digging deeper to go after the more serious potential problem, sex trafficking.

Human trafficking — both labor and sex — is considered such a serious problem in Hawaii that it’s one of 39 communities with its own federally funded task force to identify and rescue victims and prosecute traffickers.

A former Seattle police chief said he was surprised that Honolulu arrested just one pimp per year.

“It’s safe to assume that if there’s only been one pimp arrest per year for the last two years, the department is not targeting pimps — which means they’re not targeting traffickers, because by definition that’s what most of them do,” Norm Stamper told Civil Beat’s Sara Lin.

Chief Louis Kealoha wouldn’t talk. Neither would the mayor.

Maybe they don’t think policing is a worthy subject for public debate.

We disagree.

Their silence raises a troubling question: Who’s in charge?

If not the mayor or the chief, the police commission? They’re appointed by the mayor, meet in a less-than-inviting location and basically look into alleged misconduct by officers.

A spokeswoman for the department did venture an explanation of its lack of arrests of pimps: The laws are difficult to enforce because these cases require the cooperation and testimony of witnesses.

That’s true. But the Legislature last year passed a law at the urging of law enforcement enabling police to put prostitutes into witness protection. And the department itself admits that the law has had no impact.

In the end, a national expert put it best: The way Honolulu police operates in this arena makes it look like they’re going after low hanging fruit.

To catch pimps or traffickers, police need to adopt a different investigative approach, said Amy Farrell, associate director of a federally funded institute at Northeastern University that gathers national data on sex trafficking.

Police need to be building relationships with informants and infiltrating networks where people are vulnerable to pimps and traffickers, she said. It takes more effort than pretending to be buying sex and then arresting the prostitute.

It’s unclear what Honolulu police think about the extent of sex trafficking on Oahu, a tourism crossroads. It’s time they tell the public.

Police may like to keep their work close to the vest. And often that’s understandable. But how we as a community approach the issue of modern-day slavery is a moral question that deserves public debate.

Police are doing the public’s business and the public is entitled to know everything about what officers are doing that is not restricted by law.

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