Should Police Spit Hood Equipment be Used on Children?

Photo of Kevin Donoghue, solicitor, who examines police spit hood use on children in this blog post.

Kevin Donoghue asks if police spit hood use on children is appropriate.

By Kevin Donoghue, solicitor

On BBC Two tomorrow (6 December) Victoria Derbyshire will discuss an alarming increase in the use of police spit hood equipment on children as young as 8 years old.

Spit hoods, or, as the police would prefer, “spit guards”, are mesh fabric hoods police officers use to protect themselves from infection when detaining suspects. They are classed as a use of force by a police officer so that when police spit hoods are misused they can lead to misconduct investigations and significant actions against the police compensation awards.

So far, the controversial masks have only been adopted by a third of police forces nationwide. It has been reported that some Chief Constables are worried that the spit hoods available for use by UK police forces are reminiscent of the hoods used on detainees at Guantanamo Bay. And it is interesting that the Metropolitan Police is consulting on their use in police station custody suites only, out of public view.

Police Spit Hood Ban Demand

The Children’s Rights Alliance for England, together with their counterparts in Scotland and Wales, have called for a ban on the use of police spit hood equipment on children, and the Independent Police Complaints Commission (“IPCC”) has expressed concern about their use. In one particularly disturbing case Child H, an 11-year old girl, was twice placed in a spit hood by Sussex Police officers while being detained for a total of more than 60 hours. Eleven police officers and one police staff member were found to have cases to answer for misconduct following Child H’s police complaint and the IPCC investigation.

I expect that the Victoria Derbyshire programme will discuss the police’s response to a Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) request made by the Children’s Rights Alliance. Although I have yet to see it, I understand that the response confirms a 250% increase in the use of police spit hoods on children aged between 8-15 years old. (From 8 recorded instances the previous year, to 20 this year). This figure may be an underestimate because Freedom of Information Act responses by the police can be incomplete. Sometimes forces simply fail to respond to FOIA queries. As the BBC reported, one estimate of police spit hood use was likely to be low because “some forces haven’t disclosed the numbers”. In other cases, such as in Sussex Police’s Child H case, the police officers themselves failed to correctly record their use of force. The IPCC said this was a “very worrying failure in that it indicates a lack of appreciation of [officers’] own accountability”.

The police have an understandable desire to ensure their own safety and promote public acceptance of “spit guards”. (I expect anyone interviewed from the police’s side to use that phrase rather than the more widely used and understood “spit hoods”. Read why this piece of PR spin matters here.) But despite the police’s concerns, in a civilised society should we allow them to subject children to these “primitive, cruel and degrading” tools?

Kevin Donoghue is a solicitor who specialises in civil actions against the police. Contact him here.

Update: 6 December 2016

As expected, the Victoria Derbyshire programme discussed the use of spit hoods today. You can watch the discussion here (fast forward to the 1 hour 22 minutes 26 seconds mark).

Ms Derbyshire quoted figures provided by “a children’s charity” (I assume it was the Children’s Rights Alliance for England which produced this report on the State of Children’s Rights in England), which said that:

  • spit hood use on under-17s tripled in the last year (from 8 cases to 24)
  • “the true the number could be even higher”
  • in 2015 spit hoods were used on 12 children in England with the youngest being 13 years old.

In a harrowing story, a mother described how her 11-year-old daughter was restrained using a spit hood:

Mother: She just came shuffling. They had her under each arm and she had a spit hood over her head, and leg and ankle restraints on, and her head was hanging, and she had no, like, fight left in her any more, and they were literally dragging her with no shoes on. And then they put her on the floor.

Interviewer: That must have been very upsetting to see?

Mother: Yeah. I have nightmares about it.

Shamik Dutta, Lawyer at the charity Inquest, and Che Donald, Sergeant in Sussex Police and spit hood (a.k.a. “spit guard”) lead at the Police Federation, also appeared on the programme.

Arguing against the use of spit hoods, Mr Dutta said that their use is both “barbaric and unnecessary”, and that the majority of police forces do not use them. He explained that people can die when restrained face-down with handcuffs due to “positional asphyxia” (suffocation). Wearing a spit hood increases this risk because it is harder to see the suspect’s face. This makes it difficult for the police to know if the person is suffocating. And, because the victim can’t breathe they are unable to tell the police what’s happening.

Che Donald argued against this version of events, saying that the use of the “spit guard” reduces the risk. But when asked if he agreed that it was more difficult to see someone’s face with a spit hood on he said, “I appreciate that.” He also said that, because of the risk of assault by spitting on police officers, “I wouldn’t have a problem using it (a spit hood) on anyone under 17.”

Mr Dutta pointed out that spit hoods are used in conjunction with other forms of restraint. He argued that the use of the spit hood in addition to these other forms of restraint places suspects, especially children, at unacceptable risk of death or serious injury.

I have previously written about the risks Mr Dutta described. Click here to read more about them.