How Do Policing Practices in the U.S. Affect HIV?

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In the final months of 2014, people around the U.S. -- including many people living with HIV and their allies -- took to the streets to demand an end to police violence, insisting that "black lives matter." As the Positive Women's Network of the USA (PWN-USA) pointed out, "From police departments to courts and healthcare systems, institutionalized racism results in violence and death for our communities."

The Funders Concerned About AIDS (FCAA) AIDS Philanthropy Summit convened in Washington, D.C., in the midst of daily vigils and marches calling for justice in the police killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and others. So took a moment to ask conference attendees how policing practices in the U.S. affect the HIV epidemic.

Naina Khanna

Executive Director, PWN-USA

They overlap because black lives matter and because the same folks who are impacted by racist policing and police brutality are disproportionately impacted by HIV. And so, if we're serious about black lives mattering, we need to address both of these issues together. The HIV community has to be part of the solution in ending police brutality and racist policing practices.

The bottom line is that policing practices negatively impact entire communities. They perpetuate trauma on communities. And studies show that there are concrete links between trauma and not only risk for HIV acquisition, but risk for poor health outcomes, risk for connections to substance use and mental health issues. So we're looking at entire communities that are disproportionately policed and criminalized.

Edwin Bernard

Coordinator, HIV Justice Network

The police are supposed to protect and serve. I just wonder who they're protecting, and who they're serving. When it comes to HIV criminalization, the police are definitely not serving people living with HIV; they're trying to protect the so-called innocent public, or the public health.

So, in terms of interactions with the police, people with HIV are afraid of them. They should be protecting us from discrimination, and make us feel safe. When we see police, we actually feel the opposite.

Andrew Spieldenner

Secretary, US PLHIV Caucus; Assistant Professor, Hofstra University

When you are processed in jail, if you indicate that you have HIV, you've just added a minimum of 48 hours onto your processing. Because they send you to the hospital for a medical checkup. You're kept there for an additional 48 hours -- before you even see a prosecutor, before you talk to a detective, before you're able to get a public defender.

That also means that you won't get your medications. So, if you ever get processed in jail, often it's best to just not reveal that you have HIV.

Robert Grant, M.D.

Chief Medical Officer, San Francisco AIDS Foundation

We live in a culture of violence, and people who fear violence from police (who should be protecting them) feel that there's no one who has their back. It's a culture in which people may not take care of themselves, or their families, or their communities because they're always afraid.

If we can change that and people can feel that they live in a society of justice, and live in a safe society, everyone will take care of each other much more effectively.

Dázon Dixon Diallo, M.P.H., D.H.L.

President/CEO, SisterLove, Inc.

Policing practices where we live -- in the South, especially in Georgia -- affect HIV in a few ways. The level of misinformation or stigma that exists within individuals who are police officers, or within the management and policymakers of policing policies, means they don't get that HIV is not a crime.

For certain populations -- like transgender women, sex workers, active drug users, especially those who use needles for their drugs -- policing policies don't necessarily line up with the prevention policies that the rest of us need, like supporting sex workers to have as many tools, including condoms, that they need, and decriminalizing their work.

Transgender women should not be abused and violated and beaten by police in their own communities, in their neighborhoods, just walking down the street. By driving transgender women into the shadows and into the closet, they cannot access the HIV services and the prevention education that they need.

Robert Childs, M.P.H.

Executive Director, North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition

In North Carolina, we have legislation called "Have Syringes, Tell an Officer," which was HB 850. If you have syringes and you declare them prior to a search, you're not supposed to be arrested or charged. But it's implemented very differently amongst departments.

If you're in Winston-Salem or Wilmington, they won't arrest anybody for syringe possession. But if you're in some of the other counties and you declare them, they may take your syringes and charge you anyway.

The other problem that we encounter is officers don't know about the legislation. So then they'll arrest you, and make you distrustful of the law, which then means that you're not going to get new syringes and you're more likely to share syringes -- which will lead to transmission of HIV, viral hepatitis and other blood-borne diseases.

Vignetta Charles, Ph.D.

Senior Vice President, AIDS United

Policing is about targeting, and targeting communities is the key to HIV stigma. We're talking about the same communities being targeted, whether it be racial/ethnic minorities, poor people, immigrants, homosexual people. Policing, as it is currently practiced in the United States, is about targeting those that "look like offenders." When you add HIV onto the other whatever-isms, it exacerbates and adds another layer to the discriminatory practices that often happen through police action.

Sean Strub

Executive Director, Sero Project

Some of the most obvious things are with sex workers and condoms. In many places, possession of condoms is evidence of intent to engage in prostitution. So it actually discourages sex workers from carrying condoms, which is not a great idea.

People with HIV are on the front lines of the over-criminalization of so many things in the U.S. -- and have been experiencing it before a lot of the rest of the country. And of course, there are people with HIV who experience aggressive or over-policing because of their race, gender or other issues.