Dear front-line police officers in the Met,
Most of you don’t know me. If you come across my name in a professional capacity something’s gone very wrong. That’s because I am a solicitor who represents victims of police misconduct. Many of my cases involve suing the Metropolitan Police (“the Met”).
I have appeared on t.v. and radio up and down the country debating the use of spit hoods over the last few years. I have been asked, “how would you like it if someone spat in your face when you were at work?” The answer is obvious; I would not. But this question misses the point. I am not a police officer. You are. And front-line Met Police officers like you will soon get spit hoods as part of their standard equipment. The campaigners in your ranks will be celebrating. You persuaded Commissioner Cressida Dick to extend the “spit guard” roll out from custody suites. But before you pop the champagne, think about what this decision means for you, your fellow officers, and the public you serve. Listen to what those outside the police have to say. Unlike some, what I have to say is not biased with self-interest. And if you take what I say to heart you might avoid the kinds of incidents which lead innocent victims to my office door.
Spit Hoods or Spit Guards?
Before I go further, I know your Police Federation representatives don’t like the term “spit hoods”. They prefer “spit guards”. It probably polled well in a focus group. But who are they kidding? Even your own senior officers and some Police Federation representatives call them spit hoods. If you’re being honest with yourself, so did you, until you learned that the phrase “spit guards” would help convince the public to approve your use of these potentially deadly tools.
So spit hoods will become standard equipment carried by you and your fellow “bobbies on the beat” in the Met. The Metropolitan Police is the UK’s biggest police force, with more than 30,000 full-time officers, so this has significant consequences. Spit hoods (or spit guards) join other standard equipment issued to front-line police officers. These include handcuffs, leg braces, batons, and incapacitant (CS or PAVA “pepper”) spray. You’re going to make Batman jealous with all this “kit”, as some of you call it.
Getting a new piece of kit might be exciting. Remember how thrilling it was when you first got to use handcuffs and leg braces? Some of you had that thrill turned up to eleven when you got to use a Taser. (If you’re not one of them, you might be soon. The Met is giving Tasers to about 2,500 more officers within the next 13 months.)
Conduct of Front-Line Police Officers
But before you get carried away, think about the consequences of the Commissioner’s decision. I’ve had private conversations with senior officers who expressed concern that some front line police officers are too quick to use their kit. They by-pass training in de-escalation techniques, ignore Personal Safety Training guidance, and the Code of Ethics. Instead, these front-liners go straight to their tools, involving the use of force.
Often this rush to use force doesn’t end well. Tragically, some people die at police officers’ hands. Many others, including children, are injured and traumatised. You might be responsible for a life-ending or life-changing incident when using a spit hood. And if you are, you’ll be on your own.
“Nonsense,” you say.
Surely your bosses will understand. They’re right behind the spit hood roll out. Many of them lobbied for it. It’s meant to “ensure officers have what they need to do their jobs effectively and safely“, as Cressida Dick said. And the Police Federation has got your back. They’ll #protecttheprotectors like you, joining you in misconduct interviews, and speaking up for you in the media.
Are you sure about that?
It’s time for some home truths from a solicitor who has helped people get compensation after police officers have unlawfully used spit hoods.
When, not if, you’re involved in a serious incident involving the use of a spit hood, your every action will be scrutinized to the full extent of criminal, civil, and employment law.
You won’t be able to hide behind a Twitter hashtag. Nick Ferrari and those who call in to his programme, including some of your colleagues, won’t jump to your defence. You will have to show that everything you did, including the use of force, was necessary, lawful, reasonable, and proportionate. Fail to do so and you can expect public disciplinary proceedings at the least. The media love a good headline. You’ll be a star! And you might be involved in criminal and/ or civil proceedings. They could end in judicial criticism which the Met will act upon, compensation paid to your victim, and, in the worst cases, prison. It’s a good job you’re trained in courtroom etiquette and how to give evidence. You might need it.
Spit Hood Training
So, when you go for your spit hood training, ask your trainer why no one in central government has tested and approved spit hoods. Different kinds of “spit guard” are in use by police forces throughout the country. Are you confident the Met’s spit hoods are safe? How can you tell?
And, despite pressure from local police federations, you know that many UK forces refuse to issue spit hoods to front line police. Ask yourself why some forces deal with suspects spitting using other methods. Is the promotion of spit hoods a political campaign, in which front-line police officers are pawns in a chess game?
At some point, a volunteer will agree to a trainer applying a spit hood. You know how unrealistic this “spit guard” demonstration will be. BBC Wales’ Jason Mohammed felt “very claustrophobic” wearing a spit hood in the safety and comfort of a recording studio. Watch Jason and I discuss his experience by clicking on the link below:
Your subjects will not be in such an environment or calm state of mind, especially if they have been sprayed in the face with CS or PAVA.
Be on guard for fear-mongering. Despite what some police forces say, Hepatitis C and HIV cannot be transmitted through saliva. Don’t believe the lies and hype. Share accurate information about the risks with your colleagues.
As a police officer on the front line, you find yourself in challenging situations which by-standers inflame. Don’t give in to peer pressure or public goading when you’re on duty. Pay close attention to all aspects of your training, including the need to de-escalate situations before resorting to force. Remember your primary duty to protect the public in the Police Code of Ethics. Be mindful of the weapons effect, which increases the likelihood of assault and the unnecessary use of force by police officers.
Lastly, as with any other use-of-force kit, don’t use spit hoods just because you can.
Kevin Donoghue, Solicitor Director of Donoghue Solicitors