By Kevin Donoghue, Solicitor and Specialist in Civil Actions Against the Police
In an embarrassing climb-down reported in The Independent this week the Metropolitan Police (the “Met”) suspended plans to trial spit hood masks after pressure from human rights campaigners.
The news brought attention to the fact that spit hoods are presently used by forces throughout the country. Here I discuss the controversy by referring to one of my client’s cases to explain how the police use these masks.
Why the Metropolitan Police Suspended the Spit Hood Trial
The Met said it planned to use the controversial mesh masks, which it calls “spit guards”, to meet a “duty of care owed to officers” and protect them from spitting and biting. The proposals allowed for the use of spit hoods in 32 police station detention areas but not in public or on London’s streets. After announcing the plans on Tuesday morning (6 September) the force backtracked later that day saying “The Metropolitan Police Service has listened to concerns and will consult further before starting any pilot.”
It appears that the Met quickly changed its mind in the face of pressure from organisations such as Liberty, whose campaign group director Martha Spurrier, described spit hoods as “primitive, cruel and degrading” tools “that inspire fear and anguish” and “belong in horror stories”. Take a minute to watch this video and you’ll see what she means.
Widespread Spit Hood Use
The Metropolitan Police is Britain’s biggest force, employing more than 30,000 officers and nearly 50,000 people in total, so it is not surprising its plan to use spit hoods caught the public’s eye. What may be less well-known though, is that many other forces, including British Transport Police, West Mercia Police, and Sussex Police, already have spit hoods, which were used 513 times last year. And unlike the Metropolitan Police’s plan to limit spit hood use to police stations, because there is no national police policy on their use, other force officers are free to use them in public (as shown in the video at a train station above). The Police Federation, the police’s union, wants spit hoods to be used across all forces, but it’s up to the Chief Constables of each force to decide if they want their officers to be issued with them. Some of the larger forces, including West Midlands Police and Greater Manchester Police have yet to approve their use, perhaps because, as The Guardian says, some police chiefs have privately expressed concerns that they are reminiscent of hoods used at Guantánamo Bay.
The Chief Constables are right to be cautious. As well as the distressing “optics” of using spit hoods in public, there are very real concerns that their use could be a breach of a person’s human rights, particularly Article 3 of the Human Rights Act (1998) (“No one shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”). Even if that argument is not accepted by the courts, victims of spit hood use suffer physical and mental injuries which could justify a police complaint or actions against the police compensation claim, draining valuable time and resources from already stretched police forces.
Sussex Police Use of Spit Hoods
So how do the police justify the use of spit hoods? Consider Paul Smith’s experience.
I previously wrote about Mr Smith (details used with permission) in a blog about body worn cameras (read it here– I referred to him as Mr A as his case was ongoing). Paul was arrested by Sussex Police, one of the forces which uses spit hoods, for
- breach of the peace,
- obstructing the police in the execution of their duty, and
- resisting arrest
because he objected to the way police treated him for a minor traffic infringement.
After parking illegally outside Argos Mr Smith became upset when a female police officer and her male special constable colleague refused to let him go without penalty and took their time issuing a ticket.
The officer interpreted his agitation as aggression and called in a “10/20”, an emergency request for assistance. Back-up quickly arrived.
One of the back-up officers, PC X, looked like a “doorman or enforcer of some kind” and was dressed in a short sleeve shirt and black leather gloves. He took the lead and deliberately tried to provoke my client into challenging him. The officer became increasingly confrontational and accused Paul of being aggressive, despite my client remaining passive. After the officer called Mr Smith “a dick” he arrested my client for a breach of the peace. The officers manhandled him to the ground and one of them sprayed P.A.V.A. captor incapacitant spray at Paul’s face. (P.A.V.A. captor spray, also known as “pepper spray”, is absorbed through the mucus membranes of the eyes, nose, and mouth, and causes extreme pain similar to scalding heat as well as a reflexive narrowing of the airways.) Understandably, Paul tried to spit the spray out. The police put a spit hood over Mr Smith’s head, and handcuffed him to the rear.
With the spit hood in place Paul had difficulty breathing and clearing his airway. His pain and discomfort were greatly prolonged until the hood was removed at the police station.
PC X gave a written statement to justify his actions, claiming that Paul was aggressive and abusive. Unfortunately for him, two of the police’s own body worn cameras recorded the event. They exposed PC X’s false statement and I helped Paul win £25,000 compensation plus full legal costs for his actions against the police claim. Shamefully, PC X did not apologise, nor was he disciplined other than “management action”, a “slap on the wrist”.
There is no doubt that the Metropolitan Police has done the right thing by delaying its trial of spit hoods. Unfortunately, many other forces are already using them, with serious consequences for innocent victims of police misconduct, including this 11-year-old girl, who was hooded, handcuffed, and detained for more than 60 hours by Sussex Police (yes, them again). (In a worrying echo of Paul Smith’s case, Sussex Police also issued the officers in that case with mere “management advice”.)
I urge the Police Federation to think again before encouraging widespread adoption of these “barbaric” tools.
Kevin Donoghue is a solicitor who specialises in civil actions against the police. Contact him at www.donoghue-solicitors.co.uk/actions-against-the-police.