The video which surfaced Tuesday shows an officer telling the man filming that the person they were arresting, “was going to spit in your face, you’re going to get AIDS.”
Waseem Khan, who recorded the video on his phone, said he felt outraged by the AIDS comment. “How could someone living with HIV/AIDS feel safe when dealing with the police if this is how they are seen?”
Khan has filed a complaint about the incident with the Office of the Independent Police Review Director, which is responsible for investigating complaints about officers’ behaviour.
“It’s pretty disgusting,” Khan told the Star. “I have friends and relatives that have been affected by HIV/AIDS. It’s really important, especially when officers (are) supposed to be out there serving and protecting people and dealing with marginalized communities.”
Christopher Thomas, a spokesperson from The AIDS Committee of Toronto (ACT) said his organization also found the comment alarming, especially as the “ongoing conversations about the police and queer bodies have become very political over the past year.”
ACT released a statement to police urging them to hear directly from people living with the virus.
The incident is “another indication that the police need to regain a solid practice of community consultation and another disheartening demonstration of how disconnected they are from queer communities in downtown Toronto,” Thomas said.
Mayor John Tory told reporters Thursday he “was very disconcerted” by the video and “very troubled” by officers trying to stop Khan from recording the arrest and the comments about AIDS.
“I found the comments with respect to AIDS and saliva just ignorant. I mean, they are just ignorant. And I think they are offensive, and fortunately the police moved quickly to apologize.”
He added that camera footage, shot by police or members of the public, is the “best friend not only of the public, not only of safe, transparent, accountable policing, but of police officers, because in the end, that kind of video record as many times as not will stand to the benefit of police officers.”
Toronto police apologized in a series of tweets around 9 p.m. on Jan. 25, admitting the officer’s comment was “simply wrong,” and stating the 51 Division will bring in outside HIV/AIDS experts to educate their officers.
“You cannot get HIV/AIDS from spit,” Const. Victor Kwong wrote online. “We’re #sorry.” He also tweeted that a professional standards investigation into the division is currently underway.
Speaking at a Police Services Board meeting, Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders spoke of the comments.
“That was an incident, which at the end of the day, apologies were given, we are going to be making sure that every officer understands what they can and cannot do and that third and foremost there’s an investigation to look at the conduct and then deal with the situation so that it’s either training or discipline.”
Toronto police spokesperson Mark Pugash told the Star via email that “decisions haven’t yet been made” about who would educate police about HIV/AIDS transmission in light of the incident.
As the investigation is ongoing, he added that “it would be inappropriate to discuss specifics” of the case and whether or not the unnamed officer from 51 Division would receive a suspension.
Richard Elliot, the Executive Director of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, told the Star that Toronto police had been in contact with the organization on Thursday after they offered to deliver training to officers.
“I think it would be productive for the training to explore what sort of assumptions may have underlain that statement by the police officer in the first place,” said Elliot.
“Stigma surrounding drug use, poor people, racism and whatever else produce that (comment). If you were to unpack it a little bit more, dig deeper into the roots of the HIV-phobic comment that arose here, it would have a broader benefit beyond the HIV-101 stuff.”
ACT also called for the province’s attorney general to align Ontario’s HIV non-disclosure laws with the current science of HIV transmission “and stop the criminalization of people living with HIV.” Thomas stressed the incident was an opportunity for the public to see that “there’s a link between what happens on the streets and in the courts.”
“If the police — whose job is to enforce our laws — don’t understand the basics of HIV transmission, that’s a problem,” said Thomas.
Thomas said he found the “one, seemingly well-meaning constable’s attempt to apologize to the community” to be missing the point: “How can they feel confident enforcing HIV nondisclosure laws given there’s a lack of awareness among officers about the basics of transmission?”
With files from Peter Goffin, Wendy Gillis and The Canadian Press.
Author: Laura Beeston