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Police Confronted about AIDS Virus List

July 20, 1991

UNION CITY, Calif. (AP) _ AIDS activists have suspected for years that police dispatchers use code words to tell officers when a suspect is known to be infected with AIDS.

A police dispatcher didn’t bother to use a code word last month when he told an officer over public radio waves that a person was infected. The department later acknowledged it kept a list of people known to carry the virus.

The American Civil Liberties Union and AIDS advocacy groups want to ensure such a conversation never goes over public radio waves again. They say it’s a flagrant violation of privacy laws as well as those meant to ensure the confidentiality of people with AIDS.

″It’s an outrage,″ said Jill Jacobs, director of the AIDS Project in Oakland. ″People are discriminated against every day of the week and now we make it public and broadcast it on the radio.″

On June 28, police in this blue-collar town of 50,000 residents south of Oakland responded to a domestic disturbance. They were radioed an address and a person’s name and told that the person was known to carry HIV, the AIDS virus.

The ACLU has asked Police Chief Al Guzman to destroy the list and halt such broadcasts. Guzman confirmed the June 28 broadcast took place, but said it was a one-time occurrence. The chief will meet with the ACLU and representatives of several activist groups Aug. 2.

In response, police removed the AIDS notations from the database and agreed to stop the practice until the meeting, acting Police Chief Connie Van Putten said Wednesday.

Guzman was on vacation and could not be reached for comment. He has said the radioed AIDS remark was an isolated incident, but that he will continue to argue in favor of the practice.

Van Putten said the database, which is used by police and fire officials, provides various types of information to officers responding to a potential crime scene, including whether a person is infected with tuberculosis or hepatitis.

The database had four names with references to AIDS, which Van Putten said was for officers’ protection.

″This particular call was a fight call,″ Van Putten said. ″It would behoove the officer to know that (HIV status). Not on every fight call would they don gloves.″

Agencies have spent years trying to show people it’s safe to seek help for AIDS-related illness, ACLU lawyer Matthew Coles said.

″Then you get Union City police pulling a bonehead move and making a list and undoing years of work,″ he said. ″It confirms people’s worst fears.″

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control’s 1989 AIDS guidelines specify ways police can protect themselves from infection. Those include shaking out handbags instead of feeling around the interior, and wearing gloves or masks in cases where there is a risk of infection from blood.

Nationally, the ACLU has responded to about a dozen similar cases of informal list-keeping by police and fire departments in the last five years, said William Rubenstein, director of the organization’s National AIDS Project.

In each case, the practice was halted after complaints by AIDS groups, he said.

″The government has to have a compelling interest to do so, and no one so far has been able to articulate such an interest in HIV-related information,″ he said.

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