The rise of spit hoods: dangerous, degrading and unjustified

Posted by Rosalind Comyn on 21 February 2019

Two weeks ago, the Metropolitan Police backtracked on previous commitments and joined the growing number of forces rolling out spit hoods to officers on the streets.

These tightly meshed sack-like hoods – pulled over people’s heads with the intention of protecting police from spitting – are distressing, degrading and potentially lethal.

And justifications for their use do not stand up to scrutiny.

The spread of spit hoods

Spit hoods have rapidly spread to police forces across the country. At least 30 of the 43 forces in England and Wales now use them, with many ­– including the British Transport Police – already issuing them to frontline officers.

In May 2018, Sajid Javid used his first speech to the Police Federation as Home Secretary to commit to doing “everything in [his] power” to prompt a full scale roll-out.

At the time, this put the Home Office at odds with the Met, which, following its own pilot, rejected calls to supply spit hoods to frontline officers, acknowledging that they risked escalating violence in police encounters with the public.

While the Met’s use of spit hoods behind the closed-doors of custody suites remained cause for concern, this position, and the acknowledgement which underpinned it, was a step in the right direction – but the force has now u-turned.

Distressing, degrading and potentially lethal

Being hooded can be a panic-inducing and dehumanising experience. In 2016, the British Transport Police pinned a young black man to the floor and placed a spit hood over his head. Footage filmed by a bystander showed the man in extreme distress. He later said he felt he had been “treated like a dog” and the Independent Police Complaints Commission launched an investigation into the incident.

Spit hoods impair police officers’ ability to identify medical conditions and notice distress or pain. Moreover, they are designed to block spit, vomit, blood or other substances escaping them. So when a wearer discharges a substance into the hood, the breathability of the fabric dramatically drops and the risk of suffocation rises.

There have been a number of examples of deaths in police custody in circumstances in which spit hoods, or improvised spit hoods, have been used.

Being hooded by the police is traumatic, and using spit hoods against vulnerable groups is particularly disturbing. In the first nine months of 2017, spit hoods were used against at least 68 children – including a boy as young as 10.

And there have been horrifying instances of them being used against people with disabilities. In 2016, police detained an 11-year old child with a severe developmental disorder for more than 60 hours and hooded her – a treatment her mother described as “barbaric” and “the most disgusting thing” she had ever seen.  

Black and ethnic minority communities, which already account for a disproportionate number of deaths after police use of force or restraint, are likely to be disproportionately targeted by spit hoods, risking further damage to the police’s already fraught relations with the communities they serve.

The risk that particular groups will be targeted is exacerbated by vague, undisclosed or non-existent sets of police guidance on what can trigger a hooding, leaving open the possibility that police may decide someone poses a ‘threat’ of spitting simply by how they look or where they are from.

An unconvincing case

Given these many risks, what is the case for spit hoods?

Let’s be clear, nobody deserves to be assaulted as they do their job, and being spat at is plainly unpleasant. But police forces routinely rely on the risk to officer’s health –contracting HIV, hepatitis or tuberculosis (TB) – to sustain calls for a roll-out of spit hoods. These risks have been substantially overblown.

Neither HIV nor Hepatitis C can be transmitted through spit.

The minimal risk of Hepatitis B transmission can be vaccinated against – which is already done for other professionals who face a risk of being exposure at work, such as nurses, doctors and dentists.

And the UK benefits from a public vaccination programme against TB.

Last year, Avon and Somerset Police was forced to apologise for using disease transmission claims to bolster its case for spit hoods following pushback from leading service providers. It is a tactic that is at best misinformed and at worst profoundly stigmatising – preying on prejudice to strengthen a weak case.

Police concerns and the dignity of those they serve can be reconciled with proportionate measures that don’t hollow out the principle of policing by consent.

Ultimately, these medieval devices have no place in the future of policing and must be relegated to the past.

Rosalind Comyn

Rosalind Comyn

Liberty
Policy and Campaigns Officer