Five Things You Should Know About Spit Hoods

Photo of Kevin Donoghue, solicitor, who explains five things you should know about spit hoods.
Kevin Donoghue, solicitor explains five things you should know about spit hoods.

By Kevin Donoghue, solicitor and specialist in civil actions against the police

Last week I appeared on the BBC Three Counties’ JVS programme to talk about spit hoods. I’ve discussed spit hoods (which the police like to call “spit guards”) on tv and radio before. The discussions always take the same approach. The presenter discusses the issue of the day (this week it was the use of spit hoods on children) with a police officer (or pro-police advocate) and me, before inviting calls from the public and/or serving police officers. I’m there to provide “balance”. The discussions are rarely balanced though, and usually go something like this:

Police Officer: We just want to be safe in our work. Spit hoods help protect our hard-working police.

Presenter: I agree. Spitting is disgusting. I wouldn’t want to be spat at just for going to work. Would you want to be spat at Mr Donoghue?

Me: No. I agree that spitting is disgusting, but there’s more to it than that…

Presenter and police officer: (interrupting)…Spitting has no place in our society. Why are you defending these thugs? You’re wrong! Etc. etc.

Presenter: Let’s take some calls.

Member of the public/ police officer who has been told to call in: Spitting is disgusting! They get what they deserve.

Me: (sigh).

As you can tell, arguments against the use of spit hoods get drowned out. This might be because of some fundamental misunderstandings about spit hoods. Here’s five things everyone (including those in the media) should know.

1. Spit hoods/ guards can kill or cause life-changing injuries

Common, misleading statements I hear when discussing “spit guards” are that

i. they are just “fabric” or “mesh”, and

ii. that people can breathe easily in them.

Neither of these things are true.

Spit hood designs vary. (I’ll come on to why there are different spit hood masks in use shortly.)  Click here to see Damian Pettit, police commander for south Worcestershire, wearing one of his force’s spit hoods.

You can see that the main body of the spit hood is a mesh fabric. But the section in front of the mouth and nose is a plastic/ mesh “shield”.

The use of a plastic shield makes sense when you think about it. The hood isn’t there for effect: it’s purpose is to prevent the transmission of mucus and spit. How could a mere mesh fabric do that?

It makes more sense to think of spit hoods as semi-clear plastic bags. Now ask yourself: should the police put a plastic bag over someone’s head to prevent them spitting?

The plastic shield in front of the mouth and nose is an essential feature of spit hoods. But it’s also a dangerous flaw. It prevents air getting through when impermeable, usually with spit, mucus, and vomit.

Suffocation is a real risk to spit hood wearers. The masks can result in death or life-changing injuries and/or trauma.

Even though the police are trained to be aware of these risks, training doesn’t remove them. Jonathan Pluck of Cambridgeshire suffocated and died in police custody after police spit-hooded him and left him face down on a mattress. It appears that Mr Pluck suffocated because the mask became impermeable due to his spit and/or it lodged in front of his mouth and nose.

For those who do not die, the trauma of being spit-hooded can have lasting effects. This is especially so when combined with other restraint techniques. Spit hoods are rarely used in isolation, and never used in controlled environments such as radio studios, like Nick Ferrari did here. The police are more likely to use spit guards in situations like the one below involving IK Aihie. Watch the short clip and you’ll get a sense of the trauma spit hood victims suffer:

My client Paul Smith went through something similar. Sussex Police unlawfully arrested him. The police sprayed Paul in the face with PAVA (pepper) incapacitant spray. PAVA spray is an effective, painful weapon. It causes chemical burns, a reflexive narrowing of the airways, and makes the mucus membranes (nose, mouth, eyes) flow. It’s a natural response to spit, push out mucus, and cry. After spraying Paul in the face with pepper spray, the police knelt on his back, handcuffed Paul to the rear, and held him face-down on the ground. Officers also applied leg restraints rendering him completely immobile and defenceless.

They then put a spit hood over Paul’s head when they saw him spitting the PAVA spray out, even though he was face-down and not spitting at them. The spit hood quickly filled with spit and mucus. Paul begged the police for help, saying that he was choking. The police ignored his pleas and kept him in a spit hood for about half an hour.

Paul suffered physical injuries and psychological trauma due to the police assault. He was a law-abiding citizen who will “never trust them (the police) again”.

2. Spit hoods are not government-approved

It stands to reason that police officers’ “kit”, or equipment, must be tested and approved before use. The police want to know that it’s fit for purpose and can stand up to the rigours of the job. The public want to know that it’s safe and that taxpayers are getting value for money. The Home Office, through the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl), tests police kit first. This approach also saves individual police forces time and money.

The Home Office’s Dstl incorporated the Centre for Applied Science and Technology (CAST). CAST tested and set standards for CS and PAVA sprays, body armour, body worn video devices, and other things related to police work.

But CAST (now part of Dstl) has not:

  • Formally evaluated spit hoods
  • Identified suitable models for use
  • Produced any risk, safety, ethical, medical or other relevant assessments of spit hoods.

This situation created a testing and information “vacuum”. Some Chief Constables filled the gap even if their organisations may not have been equipped to do so. Forces may not have the technical expertise or budgets to

  • assess different products,
  • produce the relevant assessments, or
  • pay for suitable training.

This is made worse by media, political, and peer pressure to introduce spit hoods quickly. All these things could lead to corner-cutting with potentially devastating consequences, as I explained here.

You have to wonder why Central Government has failed to test spit hoods. The Home Office has “passed the buck” to the police. If I were a Chief Constable, I’d want answers before issuing this potentially deadly kit to my officers.

And as members of the public we have a right to know if spit hoods are safe.

3. Alternative approaches exist

During media interviews I’m usually asked “what is the alternative to spit hoods?”. The simple answer is “don’t use them”. But here are two more:

i. The use of restraints/ holds

ii. Officer visors

i. Restraints/ holds

Listen to the JVS show where we discuss spit hoods by clicking on the play button below:

You’ll hear Chris Culley, a former Metropolitan Police officer, explain (at 9 minutes 17 seconds -9 minutes 29 seconds) how:

“When I was a police officer… the simple expedient was, in those days, two or three of us would hold them and stand behind them and take a very firm grip on them and get them to a point where we could get them under some kind of control whereby they started to calm.”

This approach is effective and consistent with police officers’ training to de-escalate situations. Senior police officers have told me that some officers are too quick to use their kit. These rank-and-file officers ignore de-escalation techniques and Personal Safety Training guidance. In most cases officers could avoid using spit hoods and putting suspects at risk if they applied their training correctly.

ii. Visors

Alternatives to spit hoods exist in the event restraint techniques fail. One such approach is for police officers to use visors, like the one shown here.

Police advocates say this is impractical. They ask why officers should have to wear visors instead of using a spit hood on the suspect. There are Human Rights issues which make the use of visors worthwhile, but put them aside for a moment. One practical reason (that even police officers can get behind) is that spit hoods can make situations worse.

4. Spit hoods can make things worse

Something that can get lost in the discussion about spit hoods is that police use them on suspects, not criminals. Everyone, even a person spitting, is innocent until proven guilty. Arresting someone and putting a spit hood over their head is a serious matter. It’s a deprivation of liberty and assault if unjustified. It’s also a degrading, humiliating experience and breaches human rights.

Suspects can become upset, indignant, and argumentative when arrested. But that does not justify using a spit hood, no matter how offended the arresting officer may be by the suspect’s conduct. (Read Paul Smith’s case report for details of how a police officer was criticised for this.)

And situations can deteriorate quickly. Problems arise when officers forget their training and fail to recognise the signs of a mental health crisis or drug use. Fear, confusion, and desperation can be powerful motivators to lash out. Spit hood masks can escalate the situation from a “mere” mental health or drug-induced crisis to a life-threatening one. In a recent tragic case, Terry Smith had taken amphetamines before his arrest. An inquest found Surrey Police failed to consider this when restraining him. The coroner reported that:

“Prolonged and excessive restraint, and a failure to understand that the resistance to the restraint [by the deceased] was leading to an ongoing depletion of oxygen and an increased level of adrenaline and that this was speeding up the effects of the [amphetamines] in his body.”

Mr Smith died the following day, The Coroner’s Court jury criticised Surrey Police for “serious failings and neglect”.

5. Spit hoods are unusual in public-facing roles

Here’s something the police don’t want you to know: spit hoods are rarely used by other professionals dealing with members of the public. This might be because, according to West Midlands Police’s Force own Health, Safety & Welfare Committee

“whilst extremely unpleasant the likelihood of contracting communicable diseases from spittle is low.”

This includes serious diseases such as Hepatitis C and HIV, which cannot be transmitted by spitting. The Hepatitis C Trust and National Aids Trust expressed concern that spit hoods were wrongly being promoted as a way to help prevent hepatitis C and HIV. It criticised those who promote use this unfounded fear for their own ends, saying:

“Such falsehoods also cause unnecessary alarm to police staff. Given the significant challenges faced by police officers in the line of duty, causing them to fear they have been put at risk when they have not places an undue burden upon them, and must not go unchallenged. While the debate around the use of spit hoods is an important one for the police, policy-makers and the public, hepatitis C and HIV are of no relevance to it and should not be used as justification for their use.”

In hospitals, schools, and other places where people spit at staff, de-escalation techniques, such as effective communication and restraint holds, are used. Why should the police be any different?

Role in Society

I’m not surprised that the police campaign to get spit hoods. Police officers and their supporters are always looking for ways to get new “kit”, which they can use to control and subdue suspects. As I explained in this blog post this is leading to the increasing militarisation of our police force.

But for the rest of us, particularly those who want to live in a civilised society, spit hoods have no place.

Kevin Donoghue is a solicitor who represents victims of police misconduct. Contact him here.