Editor’s Note: This article is the fourth in a series investigating how the Honolulu Police Department enforces Hawaii prostitution laws. Read our related coverage:

Anti Human Trafficking Advocate holding a sign
Anti Human Trafficking Advocate holding a sign 

Honolulu is one of 39 cities around the country that has a federally funded task force to investigate human trafficking. But a Civil Beat analysis of every prostitution arrest made in the last year reveals not one sex trafficking victim.

In other words, either Honolulu doesn’t have a sex trafficking problem — or local law enforcement isn’t doing enough to investigate it.

A Civil Beat probe into how the Honolulu Police Department enforces prostitution laws shows the department made 214 arrests in a 12-month period. That included 118 women and 96 men.

Yet Honolulu City Prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro says as far as he knows, none of those arrested was later discovered to be a victim of human trafficking.

The police “have had several allegations of human trafficking that they investigated and none of them turned out to be credible,” Kaneshiro told Civil Beat. “The ones that were credible — who came forward and said they were trafficked — the police, when they investigated the case, they found that there’s no trafficking involved. That’s according to what the police are telling me.”

Civil Beat tracked prostitution arrests from Feb. 1, 2011 to Jan. 31, 2012 through the police department’s daily blotter, a public document that lists every adult arrest on Oahu. The goal was to determine the extent of sex trafficking on Oahu in light of concerns that have been raised about the issue by victims advocates.

The total absence of trafficking cases alarmed crime experts.

“If you have no evidence year after year of any of your prostitution arrests being tied to trafficking, you’re not looking hard enough,” said Norm Stamper, former Seattle police chief. Stamper is a proponent of legalization. He believes that a regulated sex industry would help law enforcement more effectively address sex trafficking.

Amy Farrell, associate director of Northeastern University’s Institute on Race and Justice, said the federally-funded human trafficking task force in Hawaii “should raise awareness about victimization in prostitution and focus enforcement on the promoters and exploiters.” The institute collects data on trafficking cases across the country.

The local task force, called the Hawaii Coalition Against Human Trafficking, has been around since January 2005. Its current federal grant, administered by the Hawaii Attorney General’s office, is $101,820 for a two-year period. The group includes law enforcement, victims service organizations and other agencies.

The task force’s mandate is to identify and rescue victims of trafficking and to “proactively investigate all forms of trafficking in the community and successfully prosecute known traffickers and organizations involved in the trafficking of humans,” according to Joshua Wisch, spokesman for the attorney general.

The grant also facilitates in-state and out-of-state training for law enforcement on how to recognize signs of trafficking and how to identify victims, he said.

The coalition meets five to six times a year. Wisch wrote in an email:

From 2006 to 2011, coalition members initiated 30 cases. The number of these cases are based on the information provided by the members to HPD and hence, may not be a complete listing. Of the 30 cases, 7 cases were initiated by a federal agency, 21 cases by a county agency, and 2 cases by a victim service provider. Of the 30 cases, 23 cases included other law enforcement or government agencies, and 14 cases involved other victim service providers. The majority (23) of the cases were investigations into sex trafficking, and 7 cases were for labor trafficking. There were 138 suspected victims, of which 10 were identified as juveniles. The number of suspects totaled 64.

Four of those cases were initiated by HPD in 2011 and remain active cases, according to the AG’s office.

HPD did not respond to repeated requests for information about the four cases. But Wisch said of the 30 cases, 15 are still open. Six were confirmed to be human trafficking. The others were not confirmed cases.

It is difficult to gauge the true scope of the sex trafficking problem in Hawaii. There are no reliable statistics. Every few years law enforcement manages to build a strong case against a pimp that includes kidnapping as one of the offenses. Labor trafficking has been higher profile. This fall a trial in what’s being billed as the largest human trafficking case in U.S. history, allegedly involving more than 600 Thai workers, is scheduled for federal court in Honolulu.

Hawaii, until last year, was one of a handful of states without a human trafficking law. The Legislature in 2011 passed a bill targeting labor trafficking, but not sex trafficking. Honolulu Prosecutor Kaneshiro was among those who said the state didn’t need a human trafficking law, that existing laws were sufficient.

To address sex trafficking, lawmakers lengthened sentences for pimps and made prostitutes eligible for witness protection, hoping that would aid law enforcement’s efforts to catch traffickers. But Honolulu police told Civil Beat they have not used the new law.

Honolulu Police Chief Louis Kealoha refused a request for an interview. His department took questions exclusively via email.

In June 2010, more than six months after he became chief, Civil Beat ran into Kealoha at a mayoral press conference. At the time, he told Civil Beat: “I’m not even ready to give a statement about human trafficking, although we know it’s a problem.”

When asked then what tools his office needed to better handle the problem, he answered:

“Money. I mean, you know, right now, like, you know, we have budgets issues and things like that, you know? We have to reorganize and streamline and everything but we’re not going to compromise on our first line, which is public safety. We can always use more money so we can do more things.”

Last month, Honolulu police were asked how many prostitution arrests turned out to be trafficking victims. A department spokeswoman answered:

“While human sex trafficking is a serious issue, the HPD has had relatively few cases. Some social workers have told us that they have cases, but they have not been able to provide us with the information needed to initiate an investigation. We have worked with the FBI on juvenile sex trafficking cases but cannot discuss the details of those investigations.”

Mainland crime experts suggested that lack of trafficking victims could be a reflection of the Honolulu Police Department’s overall approach toward prostitution.

“I will confess that human trafficking as a law enforcement priority is a fairly new phenomenon,” said Stamper, the former Seattle police chief. “Rarely in the past did we think of prostitutes as victims.”

A traditional vice squad strategy of arresting prostitutes can help disrupt the market. But if a trafficking victim’s first encounter with police is being arrested, it’s unlikely she’ll suddenly turn witness for the state, said Farrell, with Northeastern University.

“Even if a woman has been a victim, she doesn’t trust them,” she said. “She’s worried about all kinds of retribution from her traffickers. There’s very little possibility in that situation that’s she’s going to provide information.”

Instead, detectives need to spend time building informants and infiltrating networks of those at-risk of being trafficked.

Honolulu police declined to discuss their investigative strategies except to say that they are “various.” But their approach may be hamstringing prosecutors.

Kaneshiro told Civil Beat that trafficking is a priority for his office, but he just hasn’t found any victims.

“That there’s not that many cases…that concerns me, especially if people are saying this is a big problem over here.”

“We are willing to go ahead and do the investigation and prosecution,” he said. “But we can’t investigate without a complainant.”

Kathy Xian, one of the main voices behind the local anti-human trafficking movement, says the lack of trafficking victims is a reflection on law enforcement’s approach to the problem — not the problem itself.

“The way this system treats the victims in prostitution arrests is not conducive to them admitting to law enforcement what is really going on — that they are being trafficked,” Xian said.

“The whole paradigm has to change,” she said. “If they want to take a bite out of sex trafficking, they cannot arrest the victims, it just does not work.”

Nationally, between January 2008 and June 2010, federally-funded task forces investigated 2,515 suspected incidents of human trafficking. About eight in 10 of the suspected incidents involved sex trafficking while one in 10 were labor trafficking incidents, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. The remaining cases were of an unknown trafficking type.

The task forces confirmed that 389 incidents were human trafficking and identified 460 sex trafficking victims.

The FBI does not get involved in sex trafficking cases unless they involve children or adults forced into prostitution against their will who have been brought to Hawaii from elsewhere, according to local FBI spokesman Tom Simon.

Still, sex trafficking across state lines is rare here, he said.

“Because Hawaii is the most remote place on planet Earth, traveling here to set up a prostitution ring with coerced sex workers from afar is an expensive prospect,” Simon said.

“While we have seen isolated instances of pimps coming to town with teenage prostitutes over the years, we do not believe that the interstate transportation of coerced sex workers into Hawaii is currently an epidemic,” he said. “The overhead costs for the pimps is simply too high to justify the mass trafficking of coerced prostitutes into Hawaii.”

He said: “Sadly, Hawaii’s prostitution problem appears to be largely homegrown.”

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