Spit hoods - necessary to protect police officers or just too dangerous?
What are spit hoods?
A spit hood is a mesh covering placed over the ‘aggressor’ or ‘potential aggressor’s’ head to prevent spitting and/or biting of a police officer.
Spit hoods are usually placed on the individual when they are already handcuffed, so by nature they would be unable to remove it from their head. The individual is highly restricted in their movement (which might include leg restraints too).
What’s the law governing the use of spit hoods?
Section 117 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE) states that officers are allowed to use ‘reasonable force’ in the exercise of their powers. PACE 1984 governs policing duties and the remit of their control over members of the public.
Who is using them?
Spit hoods are used by 30 of the 43 police forces in England and Wales. Spit hoods, for a long period, were being used on people who were already in custody, but are increasingly being distributed to front-line officers.
Why are they used?
The main argument in favour of a spit hood by police is that it prevents the potential spread of diseases through saliva.
Why are they a problem?
The first national record of statistics from the Home Office found that spit hoods and/or bite guards were used 2,600 times from April 2017 to March 2018. This included (with some cross-over of conditions):
- 1,000 people suffering from mental health problems
- 1,600 people who were intoxicated
- 1,200 people under the influence of drugs.
Cressida Dick, the Commissioner for the Metropolitan Police, has rightfully resisted the widespread enforcement of spit hoods in the Metropolitan Police. But I don’t think she has gone far enough.
The use of spit hoods engages of Article 3 ECHR (the right not to be subjected to torture, inhuman and degrading treatment). Spit hoods have the potential to mirror a waterboarding effect. Any form of liquid on the mesh, such as vomit, saliva, blood (all possible scenarios) transforms the hood from being breathable to permeable.
In some instances, the use of spit hoods has led to death. On 12 November 2013, Terry Smith’s family called for an ambulance because he was acting out of character and becoming increasingly agitated. Staines Police arrived with ambulance staff to detain him under Section 136 of the Mental Health Act 1983. He was restrained with handcuffs, leg restraints and a spit hood. He was further restrained by five to six officers at the police station. During this time, the police did not remove any equipment. Terry stopped breathing when he was later moved to a police van. Once the police realised this, he was taken to hospital by ambulance and was pronounced dead the following day.
In Mr Smith’s case, there was ineffective policing and an uninformed use of policing equipment. This could have been avoided, had the officers taken precaution and care when handling Terry. These include:
- Failure to remove the spit hood to prevent excited delirium
- Failure to check on Mr Smith’s health and especially his breathing
- Failure to quickly respond to the medical emergency once the officers were aware
The inquest concluded that Mr Smith died as a result of amphetamine-induced excited delirium. Terry did not cause his own death as there was only low level of amphetamine in his blood. The officers failed to carry out their policing duties whilst Mr Smith was in their care, which amounted to an excessive use of force. Similar to Eric Garner who encountered a stop and search instance that resulted in his death in New York, Terry Smith also said, “I can’t breathe”.
What does/should the future hold?
While it’s hard to envisage the use of spit hoods being abandoned, there’s a strong argument that they should.
The argument for their use is not convincing. No statistics are available to show how many police officers have contracted a disease due to spitting. We can be fairly confident that none have died as a consequence of being spat on. When weighed against the fact that the use of a spit hood is potentially lethal, this is clearly not a proportionate response to any threat posed.
Spit hoods are a step too far given the risk of serious injury or death to the detainee.
Their use is also arguably detrimental to upholding basic policing standards of communication and de-escalation to resolve violence and aggression. Is this the way we want our police to conduct themselves when in contact with people who are most likely to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol or in mental crisis? Surely, we can do better?