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Ottawa Police chief will decide whether info is released in future HIV cases

Results of review could entrench poor practices, Bauer fears

When it comes to the release of personal information and photos, the chief of police will make the call in future cases of HIV nondisclosure, according to a report released Nov 15.

Inspector Joan McKenna, co-chair of the Police Liaison Committee to the queer community, announced changes in  Ottawa Police Services (OPS) policies at its most recent meeting.

The news comes after months of controversy over a press release issued in May. Police released the photo and personal details of a HIV-positive man charged with aggravated sexual assault after he failed to disclose his HIV status before having unprotected sex.

The press release, and a subsequent email sent out by the liaison committee using the words “sexual predator,” was widely condemned by HIV activists and community organizations but supported by some members of the liaison committee.

In response to the controversy, OPS conducted an operational review that examined its internal operations. Two recommendations came out of the process: to review the media policy and to look at the options for future messaging of incidents in a criminal investigation.

In announcing the recommendations, McKenna said there was no change in the official media policy guidelines. She said it was a “segue way to releasing information” and therefore no change was needed.

McKenna said that in cases where criminal charges are being pursued related to HIV exposure, it is up to the chief to decide whether to release personal information about a suspect. The information may include a name, photo and date of birth. In some circumstances, OPS would consult Ottawa Public Health or other stakeholders in the community.

Leaving the decision in the hands of Ottawa’s top cop does not mean that, in practice, anything will change. Earlier this year, Chief Vern White said that, given similar circumstances, he would release the name and photo of someone charged in future HIV-nondisclosure cases. He also defended the use of the term “sexual predator.”

Brent Bauer of the Gay Men’s Wellness Initiative is disappointed in the policy changes.

“It’s a reaffirmation of what the Ottawa Police Service already did. It’s reading into the records a precedence by which the police chief has full discretion to publish the picture and personal information of an alleged high-risk offender even when the alleged suspect is in custody,” says Bauer.

Bauer says that the meaning of the policy was vague in defining what significant risk to the public is and how the community groups would be consulted.

“The policy remains vague in terms of the consultation process with community groups, and since we don’t have precedence for it, we are encouraging the Ottawa Police Service to work with us at our community table to develop guidelines around the handling of these cases,” says Bauer.

In July, Bauer approached the Police Services Board and urged it to develop guidelines for cases dealing with HIV nondisclosure. The board rejected his proposal.

“We hope they reconsider their decision in July of not participating in community dialogue because we believe, in essence, this is the foundation of good community-based policing,” says Bauer.

McKenna believes the report is a step forward. She says the controversy has been a learning experience and has drawn attention to the issues surrounding the criminalization of HIV and how it affects the gay community.

McKenna also says that releasing the photo of the suspect in May was in the best interest of the public.

“I think the police have an improved way of doing business, and I think that the [Police Liaison Committee to the lesbian, gay, bi and trans community] have a better understanding of how we do our business and we have a better understanding of the impact that it had in certain communities,” says McKenna.