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BCPWA launches police complaint

Society alleges man's HIV status publicized unnecessarily

BEYOND THE BOUNDS: British Columbia Persons With AIDS Society members Glyn Townson (left) and Derek Bell say the VPD overstepped its authority by needlessly publicizing a man's HIV status. Credit: Matt Mills photo

The British Columbia Persons with aids Society (BCPWA) filed a complaint with the Vancouver Police Board Jun 15, alleging the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) unnecessarily publicized a man’s HIV-positive status in a Mar 30 press release.

The man was charged in February with two counts of aggravated sexual assault for allegedly engaging in unprotected sex with two Vancouver men on different occasions after denying to them that he was HIV-positive.

The complainants’ identities are protected by a court-imposed publication ban, and although the accused’s identity has been widely publicized in the mainstream press, Xtra West will not publish his name without his consent.

Shortly after the accused was charged, the VPD issued a press release about him under the banner “Wanted sex offender,” asking for help in determining his whereabouts.

The BCPWA complaint alleges that the accused, who now lives in Toronto, drove to Vancouver to answer the charges, cooperated fully with police investigators and appeared in court on Mar 21. But on Mar 30, after he returned to his home to await trail, the VPD issued a second press release again revealing the man’s HIV-positive status and which read in part: “Investigators are interested in speaking with anyone who can

provide further information on [the complainant].”

The mainstream press picked up the story and ran the man’s name and picture the following day.

The BCPWA complaint urges the police board to establish a firm policy preventing the VPD from publishing any individual’s HIV-positive status unless there is unambiguous evidence of ongoing reckless personal behaviour that endangers public safety.

“It is simply unreasonable to contend that alerting the general public of Vancouver to [the man’s] HIV-positive status served any public safety purpose whatsoever,” reads the complaint to the police board. “And if no public safety function was served, there can be no justification for the disclosure.”

“If they were worried about others being exposed, there are public health nurses that do partner tracking,” says BCPWA vice-chair Glyn Townson.

“Our issue is that that process didn’t take place. We have systems in place here to handle these kinds of situations. It turns it into a criminal issue rather than a health issue. There’s a lot of stigma attached with being HIV-positive. It blows it out of proportion when you get sex offender messages coming on TV.”

“This is becoming more and more commonplace,” Glenn Betteridge, senior policy analyst for the Canadian HIV/AIDS legal network, told Xtra West in a Jul 27 phone interview. “Not just in BC but throughout Canada, we’re seeing cases of the press being used to build cases against HIV-positive people accused of aggravated sexual assault.”

“I had some problems with this,” civilian police board member Mary McNeil told Chief Constable Jamie Graham at a Jul 19 police board meeting. “There can’t be a policy that covers each and every incident you have. You have to do your best, but I think here I didn’t see a threat level and it was a concern for me. So I’d love to hear the other side.”

“This one is slightly different,” replied Graham. “The threat level, I don’t think, was a concern at the time. We were trying determine further victims of a sexual assault. There was some indication that this was a reasonable thing to do. We were sensitive to the privacy of the individuals. It was a very measured and cautious response. The intent of what we did was lawful and within the legislation.”

After saying he didn’t know the details of the case despite the fact that the BCPWA complaint was filed more than a month before the police board meeting, Graham told the board that the decision to release the man’s information was a result of consultations among the VPD media liaison, sex crimes detectives and VPD freedom of information officer. He also pointed out that details of the case that appeared in the BCPWA complaint didn’t appear in the VPD media release.

“We have an in-house freedom of information expert so we are very sensitive for very good reasons to what we say and do,” he said. “For the most part we get it right. We seek advice from experts in the field.”

But Deputy Chief Constable Doug LePard, who told the police board he was only speaking generally and didn’t know the details of the case either, seemed to indicate that the threat level was indeed a concern for the VPD.

“There is a process under the Freedom of Information Act that comes right up to me for approval before we make the decision to [release personal health information]… This is a person who is HIV-positive and there are concerns the person may have other sexual partners who are not aware of his HIV status and who are exposing themselves to a possible death sentence. So, while I can’t speak to the particulars of this case, I can say with a person who is out there having sexual relationships, that we would err on the side of public safety warning that a person is HIV-positive.”

The police board instructed Graham to conduct a policy review on the public dissemination of information regarding an individual’s health status and communicable diseases and to report back at the next police board meeting scheduled for Sep 13.