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Dear Police: Once and For All, Saliva Does Not Transmit HIV

Jeffery David Crook

Another HIV-positive person is charged with attempted murder for biting a police officer during a struggle. 

When will law enforcement get the message? HIV is neither a death sentence nor transmittable through saliva. So why do they keep arresting HIV-positive people for spitting and or biting and, as in the latest case, charging them with attempted murder?

According to the Baltimore, Maryland-based Capital Gazette, 46-year-old Jeffery David Crook, has been charged with attempted murder for allegedly biting an Anne Arundall County police officer during a tussle.

Crook is being held on half a million dollar bond and has reportedly been charged with multiple counts related to an alleged burglary and the assault on the officer. Crook was reported to the cops after “banging” on the outside of the home of Crook's ex-boyfriend. Refused entry into the home, Crook allegedy “forced his way” into the house through a sliding glass door and was punched in the face by another man who was in the house. 

Officers reported that they located Crook “rambling and incoherent" in an upstairs bedroom and he refused to obey their commands. When they attempted to forcedly arrest him, he resisted so a scuffle ensued. Police say that Crook was then Tasered, which, they allege, had no effect on him, and Crook bit an officer’s arm.

Police stated that the bite broke the officer’s skin, but it was Crook who was immediately transported to a local hospital center for “minor injuries,” the Gazette reported, citing local court records. “While there, he indicated that he was HIV-positive and bit the officer knowing the risk of transmitting the infection.”

Police spokesman Lt. Ryan Frashure said he couldn’t recall another incident where an officer was exposed to a "highly infectious disease," especially “where it was done intentionally."

Crook was charged with attempted second-degree murder, home invasion, second-degree assault, third-degree burglary, and reckless endangerment, according to court records.

From a public and mental health perspective, there are so many things wrong with this story, it’s hard to know where to begin. Crook's mumbling, incoherent demeaner should have been a sign he may have been suffering from mental health issues. After entering his former partner’s house (through an unlocked sliding glass door, mind you), he was assaulted and his lip was cut. But instead of calling mental health professionals, officers tried to cuff him. When he struggled, they tased him. Although they reported that Tasing “had no effect,” he was taken to a hospital. Since few suspects are taken to a medical center for “minor injuries” before being interogated, it seems likely they realized he could not give clear answers because of his condition.

More to the point, once at the hospital, Crook disclosed his HIV status. His indication that he bit the police officer "knowing the risk of transmitting the infection,” could have been him simply acknowledging he was aware of his HIV status before he bit the man, or even that he knew there was little or no risk of transmitting HIV through saliva.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is clear “HIV isn’t spread through saliva.” 

According to the CDC, biting, spitting, and throwing body fluids all carry "negligible" risk of infection. It is particularly disheartening for activists fighting the criminalization of HIV when poz individuals are convicted of felony crimes for having spat at, bit, or thrown fluids at an officer when it is nearly impossible to transmit HIV that way.

In this specific case, no doubt the argument is that Crook was bleeding from the mouth when he bit the officer hard enough to break skin. But breaking skin and having a small amount of each person's blood comingling is still highly unlikely to transmit HIV.

Even if a person with HIV gets hurt playing tackle football or boxing at the gym, it’s “highly unlikely that HIV transmission could occur in this manner,” according to the University of Rochester Medical Center. “The external contact with blood that might occur in a sports injury is very different from direct entry of blood into the bloodstream, which occurs from sharing needles or works.”

Even if the officer in question did defy all odds and turn up HIV-positive, there's no way to be sure it was transmitted in this occassion. Moreover, there’s still a significant problem with the charge of attempted murder. Like many laws that criminalize behavior like sex work or add sentencing penalties only for those who are HIV-positive, charging someone with attempted murder instead of assault is based entirely on the outdated equation that HIV equals death. It's based on an outdated view of the HIV-positive body not as a human being but as a “deadly weapon.”

These offensive tropes are decades out of date, have been out-and-out discredited by modern science, and rendered obsolete by the development of highly active antiretroviral medications that have transformed HIV from a terminal disease to a manageable chronic condition.

And yet, when confronted with even the tiniest of bodily fluid of HIV-positive individuals, police officers continue to overreact with fear (the officer in the Crook case “remained out of work” days after the incident) and arrest people for actions that cannot transmit HIV, simply because they discover their alleged perp also has HIV.

Around the country, district attorneys in these cases continue to charge HIV-positive individuals with crimes for things that are not criminal, continue bumping up simple charges from misdemeanors to felonies just because the individuals involved are poz, and continue to claim that exposure to HIV is a death sentence when it isn’t. Judges continue to accept these arguments, and continue handing down these overblown sentences, often without the abiility for parole.

Most of the law and order representatives who embrace HIV criminalization do so out of ignorance, but some are aware of the facts and proceed anyway because the law was written in such a way that facts, medical findings, and scientific proof simply have no bearing on the case.

Many of those who are serving extended prison terms have not even transmitted HIV to another person (think Michael Johnson in Missouri and Kerry Thomas in Idaho, both serving 30 year sentences). Yet they often face sentences higher for spitting or having sex without disclosure than if they had actually murdered the person they are accused of exposing to HIV.

How flawed is this system? And what kind of lesson does this teach people about those living with HIV? For one thing, it teaches that knowing one’s status is a legal liability. In Crook’s case — as in most other cases — the determining factor of guilt is often based on whether the individual knew they were HIV-positive at the time. Spit on a police office without knowing you’re poz, it’s a misdemeanor assault. Spit on an officer once you know have HIV? It’s attempted murder. Neither one can actually transmit HIV.

To us, it’s just insane. 

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