Toronto police’s long history of stigmatizing people with HIV

Last Tuesday's tasering of a man allegedly involved in a spitting incident is the latest in a long line in which police across Canada have used HIV to justify excessive force

Last Tuesday, January 24, a Black man was tasered and kicked by Toronto police while several officers restrained him face down on the asphalt. It happened a few blocks from the gay village.

The man had reportedly been involved in a spitting incident outside Seaton House and had kicked his way out of the police cruiser at Church and Dundas while being taken to the police station. (He has since been identified as Andrew Henry of no fixed address. He is facing nine charges, including for allegedly assaulting a police officer.)

A witness recorded the incident on his cellphone. One officer said, “Stop recording or I’m going to seize your phone as evidence, and then you’re going to lose your phone.” When the man refused to stop, the officer told him, “He’s going to spit in your face, and you’re going to get AIDS,” referring to the man being restrained. 

Toronto police apologized for the officer’s remarks, sending out a tweet to clarify that HIV cannot be contracted through saliva, something researchers have known since the 80s, following a public outcry from people living with HIV, queers and people of color alike. Chief Mark Saunders has reportedly asked for a full report on the incident. 

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If the man being restrained is indeed living with HIV, the police officer breached his privacy. Worse, he did so to incite fear. 

People with HIV continue to face violent forms of discrimination at the hands of police in Canada. In many cases, police use their HIV-positive status as a justification to breach their privacy in the service of their investigations.  

In one case from 2004, Toronto police released the photograph of a 26-year-old white woman living with HIV, justifying the breach of her privacy because she supposedly posed a “huge threat” to the public. 

During a televised press conference – noted as an extraordinary measure due to the perceived severity of the threat – a police officer stated that 10 men had come forward as complainants against the woman. 

In reality, there was only one complainant. Police had intentionally trumped up the potential threat as an investigation tactic.  

A condom had broken during sex, at which time she disclosed her HIV-positive status to the complainant, who went to the police. He did not contract HIV. Court heard that she did not reveal her HIV status to the man prior to the sex because she “got scared.” Her lawyer also revealed that the woman had mental health issues. 

The woman later reported that she was kicked out of a public pool with her child after being recognized from media reports. 

Police have also been complicit in promoting anti-Black racism in HIV-related investigations. Many of the nearly 200 cases currently in the courts disproportionately involve men of colour and marginalized women. 

A recent York University tracking media reports since 1989 indicates that, while Black men account for 31 per cent of people who have faced criminal charges related to HIV non-disclosure in Canada, they are the focus of 68 per cent of newspaper articles dealing with such cases. 

The study did not indicate how many of the reports were originally generated by police statements. However, police are often the primary initial source of such information, responsible for the release of photographs and private information of men of colour living with HIV.

In Canada, there is a long history so-called “exposure” cases in which people with HIV have been criminalized for incidents involving spitting. 

In 2014, there were two such spitting cases in Canada: people living with HIV in Quebec and Manitoba were charged with assault for allegedly exposing police officers to HIV. In both cases the people charged were Indigenous and there was evidence of assault by police prior to the alleged spitting. The police officers were subsequently put on pricey post-exposure prophylaxis medications paid for by taxpayers, despite evidence that HIV is not transmissible through saliva. 

Looking back is helpful in understanding the present, especially in light of recent police attempts to regulate queer sexuality with arrests in Marie Curtis Park in Etobicoke. 

Since the early days of the epidemic, police across Canada have used HIV to justify excessive force and extraordinary measures against queers or others. Yet police are rarely held accountable. 

Over 70,000 people are living with HIV in Canada, 20,000 of them in Toronto. We are people who care about our health and are active in our communities. Yet, like many marginalized populations, we are over-policed and under-protected.

This week’s tasering incident is part of a long history of police violence against people living with HIV.

Now Toronto police say they will provide sensitivity training to 51 Division officers involved. In 1987, after police shot tear gas into the home of an east-end man living with HIV, the Toronto  police service also promised to work on HIV education programs for officers.

The man was alone, unarmed and reportedly had mental health issues. The Toronto Star reported the story with the headline, “Tear gas used to overpower AIDS victim.” A psychiatrist from Toronto General Hospital later told the Star that, “The excessive response by the police was the result of uninformed fear of AIDS contagion, combined with the irrational fear of mental illness.” 

Past fears still prevail among police.    

Alexander McClelland is completing a PhD on the criminalization of HIV non-disclosure at the Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies in Society and Culture, Concordia University. He is a member of AIDS Action Now! and is living with HIV. | @nowtoronto

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