Police must remove and end use of database warning markers for HIV to stop HIV stigma, says National AIDS Trust
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Warning markers identifying a person as living with HIV must be removed and no longer used on police databases. This is the recommendation made in National AIDS Trust’s new report HIV and the police, which documents proactive action taken by police in Merseyside and Avon & Somerset to address HIV stigma in the force .
National AIDS Trust’s report details how police occasionally record HIV as a warning marker against records on local databases feeding into the Police National Computer (PNC) if someone who has been arrested tells them they are living with HIV. These markers should only be used to provide police with information to protect the public and themselves.
Including HIV is based on a misunderstanding of transmission risk in the police. There has never being a case of a police officer or emergency worker acquiring HIV at work, and HIV is not transmitted via spitting or biting. However, the report tells of common misinformation and worry among police about the risk of acquiring HIV.
Fear and misinformation around HIV have devastating effects for people living with HIV and contribute to stigma. HIV stigma stops people from accessing HIV testing and treatment, hindering public health efforts, and significantly affecting the wellbeing of people living with HIV.
Merseyside and Avon & Somerset police are among forces taking action to identify and remove markers relating to HIV from their systems. The Metropolitan Police Service and the Home Office are understood to also be taking steps to address this issue.
Kat Smithson, Director of Policy at National AIDS Trust, said:
“A person’s HIV status should be treated as sensitive and confidential medical information. Marking HIV as a warning on anyone’s record only increases stigma and breaches confidentiality. It implies there’s a risk of transmission when there isn’t, and that differential treatment is warranted in some way when this is completely unnecessary and is discriminatory under the law.
“Officers have told us of the harmful effect on police colleagues living with HIV who regularly see their health condition marked as a hazard on the system.”
National AIDS Trust wants to see the action taken by Merseyside and in Avon & Somerset police, and underway in London, expedited nationally. The UK’s HIV right’s charity is also calling for better HIV training and guidance for police across the country so this practice is stamped out for good.
Kat Smithson added:
“People should be able to feel safe telling the police their HIV status, if needed. Custody officers in both our case studies reported a significant shift in their approach since they received HIV training. They’re now only concerned with securing fast access to medication for someone in their care who’s living with HIV, and they have a better understanding of confidentiality needs.”
Chief Constable Carl Foulkes, National Police Chiefs’ Council’s Lead for Diversity, Equality and Inclusion, said:
“We are pleased that the report recognises the good work being undertaken by forces to improve knowledge and practice among officers and staff. This will undoubtedly reduce the stigma that affects those living with HIV. Our work has been assisted by our partnerships with national and local HIV charities and their support as a critical friend has been invaluable.
“We do recognise there are some areas that we need to fix as a priority, in particular the recording of HIV on police databases. Forces across England and Wales have started to address this issue and further work is on-going nationally to coordinate this work.”
Stopping HIV stigma in the police
As well as calling for better data and confidentiality practices, the report recommends key features needing to improve trust between police and people living with HIV are:
- leadership and accountability, including demonstrated support for HIV rights from senior officials at the top of the force
- accessible HIV training tailored to the police and involving people living with HIV
- effective communications on HIV, including talking about HIV as an equality issue and not just a health and safety issue, and ensuring all internal policies and guidance about HIV are accurate and reviewed regularly.
Tracy O’Hara QPM, Detective in Merseyside Police, said:
“HIV awareness is critical to those of us working within the police service. Knowledge and understanding helps us interact better with those we come into contact with, it shows the public that there is no place for stigma and we are committed to educating ourselves on the continued developments in health and medicine. Our work with local HIV charity Sahir House has been absolutely vital in raising awareness for our colleagues here in Merseyside Police and that work continues.”
“Those living with HIV today must be heard, their lived experiences are vital to ensuring we have the knowledge around HIV. I also feel strongly about my colleagues who live with HIV, it is vital we create workplaces where stigma is challenged not reinforced, where colleagues can share their status and know that they will be supported.”
“This report, I hope, will enable other police forces to follow in the path of Merseyside and Avon & Somerset and ensure their systems do not discriminate nor judge.”
Brigstowe is a Bristol-based charity working with people living with HIV in Bristol, South Gloucestershire, and North Somerset and took part in the roundtables National AIDS Trust ran as part of the report’s research.
Aled Osborne, Fundraising and Communications Manager at Brigstowe, said:
“The foundations of any relationship are mutual respect and open communication. It is because of these we have such a strong relationship with Avon & Somerset Police and is a brilliant example of best practice when it comes to creating change. This way of working should be utilised not just for police forces nationally but for all public sector organisations.
“Although great improvements have been made there is still a lot work to do. We are excited to continue working with Avon & Somerset Police on this work and the positive impact this will have for people living with HIV in Bristol and the surrounding areas.”
Notes to editors
 HIV and the police, National AIDS Trust, March 2021, https://www.nat.org.uk/publication/hiv-and-police
HIV and the police tells how two Merseyside Police and Avon and Somerset Police are tackling HIV stigma and discrimination, with input from local Police Federation reps, local police representatives, the National LGBT+ Police Network, UNISON, and local HIV organisations, people living with HIV, and HIV clinicians.
National AIDS Trust set out to learn from good practice in the police force and highlight initiatives that can be replicated across the country by hosting a number of roundtables to share good practice.