Seeking to safeguard those who deal with criminals on a daily basis, Dist. Atty. Michael D. Bradbury will ask Ventura County supervisors Tuesday for permission to test certain inmates for the virus that causes AIDS.
Under Bradbury's proposal, county doctors would test inmates in county jails for the AIDS virus only in instances when officers are exposed to a prisoner's blood.
"The testing would be done only in certain situations, after the chief medical officer makes a determination that there was a real risk (of infection) given the nature of the contact," said Kevin J. McGee, the chief assistant district attorney.
"It's a tool that is necessary to assist police officers who are keeping people in custody."
County Public Health Officer Gary Feldman said he has performed up to 20 tests for HIV at $25 a piece on Ventura County prisoners in the past two years, all of which were negative.
But a new amendment to a state law requires that local governments--boards of supervisors or city councils--approve of testing when necessary.
"If (deputies or jailers) get a blood-to-blood contact in the course of their duty, it makes them nervous," Feldman said. "It can be extremely reassuring to know the person was HIV-negative."
Los Angeles and Orange counties already have adopted similar resolutions.
But attorneys at the American Civil Liberties Union, which lost a legal challenge to the law when it was adopted in 1988, said the tests are unnecessary.
"All they tell you is whether the person you test was infected over three to six months ago," said Jon Davidson, an ACLU attorney in Los Angeles. "Someone who's recently infected is not going to show up because what they test for are antibodies."
Officials at ACT-UP Los Angeles, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, also are concerned about the policy.
"It violates people's constitutional rights," said Stephanie Boggs, an ACT-UP volunteer. "Once you set up something like this, it opens up the door to mandatory testing for people at large.
"Pretty soon, they'll be singling out target populations or certain minorities," she said. "But the reality is that anybody can be HIV-positive."
Now, inmates at Ventura County Jail known to carry the AIDS virus are not segregated from the jail population unless they are visibly ill, Sgt. Mark O'Donnell said.
"I'm sure we have them, but that doesn't always mean we know," O'Donnell said. "Providing that we do know they're HIV-positive, we give them any medication that's prescribed to them, and if they're outwardly ill they are placed in the infirmary."
But Boggs of ACT-UP said it is not unusual for prison guards or correctional officers to discriminate against inmates carrying the virus for acquired immune deficiency syndrome.
"There have been at least three (killings) of inmates who were known to be HIV-positive," she said.
Jim Creeger, a research manager with the Office of AIDS in the state Department of Health Services, said he has never heard of a law enforcement officer contracting the AIDS virus through prisoner contact.
"If it happened in California, I certainly would have heard about it," Creeger said. "And we've had about 400 cases (of officers being exposed to prisoners' blood) in the past two years."
Al Cooper of the California State Sheriffs Assn. said it is not uncommon for officers to be exposed to tainted blood during arrests or prison fights.
"You just have to keep taking (HIV) tests, and that's a terrible trauma," he said. "But if you don't do it, and turn out to be HIV-positive, then you can infect your wife or family.
"I imagine every agency would (test inmates) in the blink of an eye," Cooper said.
Supervisors asked about the proposal on Thursday indicated they would support it when they vote Tuesday.
"You have to maintain the safety factor between the people who are protecting us and those who are in custody," Supervisor Frank Schillo said. "It's not a matter of personal rights, it's a health problem."
Supervisor Judy Mikels agreed. "The foremost thing we have to keep in mind is protecting personnel," she said.
Feldman said about 2,000 Ventura County residents are infected with the human immuno-deficiency virus. But that is just his best guess.
"That's a very rough number because HIV status is not a reportable condition," Feldman said. "We have no direct way of measuring HIV prevalence in the community."
Ventura County Public Defender Kenneth I. Clayman said he could not argue with those who support testing certain inmates for the virus.
"I can't find an objection to it," Clayman said. "On the surface, it seems reasonable."
Eric Nelson, a corrections officer at the new Todd Road Jail dedicated Thursday, said the potential for HIV exposure is too great to be ignored.
"It's a tremendous risk," he said. "When we respond to fights, oftentimes there's blood."
Correctional officers already undergo a series of vaccinations for communicable diseases such as Hepatitis B. But without the ability to test prisoners for the AIDS virus, guards are vulnerable, Nelson said.
"We have a right to know whether we've been exposed to the virus."