With Police Spit Hood Trial Expansion, Democracy Dies in Darkness

Photo of Kevin Donoghue, solicitor, who writes about the Metropolitan Police spit hood trial expansion in this blog post.
Solicitor Kevin Donoghue considers the Metropolitan Police’s spit hood trial expansion.

By Kevin Donoghue, Solicitor

I was disappointed to read that the Metropolitan Police has expanded its police spit hood trial to include all custody suites across London. Spit hoods, or, as “The Met” likes to call them, “spit guards”, are made of nylon mesh with a plastic reinforced panel at the front. They are placed over a subject’s head to prevent the transmission of spit, mucus, vomit, and/ or blood.

The Metropolitan Police say that the original scheme was successful, but “too limited”. It was based in 5 custody suites in north-east London police stations, but will now run Force-wide.

This is a significant development as the expansion now affects over 8 million people in the Metropolitan Police area, and countless millions more who visit the Greater London area every year.

I wrote about the dangers of police spit hoods here. They can become impermeable when bodily fluids coat the inside of the hood. This makes it hard to breathe, as my client Paul Smith found out. And the use of spit hoods with other forms of restraint increases the risk of death or serious injury by “positional asphyxia”. Those concerns seem to have been ignored.

Evidential Issues with Police Spit Hood Expansion

I am also concerned about the lack of transparency in the decision to extend the police’s spit hood trial. The Met says that the pilot was “successful”, but puts forward no evidence in support of its claim. What does the Force consider a “successful” trial? That, unlike Jonathan Pluck, no one died in custody while wearing a police spit hood?

Also, it claims that:

“Spit guards are a nationally approved piece of police personal safety equipment and are already used by 22 forces across the UK.”

This sounds reassuring, but, like the police’s use of the phrase “spit guards” and not “spit hoods”, is it just spin?

“1. “Nationally approved”

The Government’s Centre for Applied Science and Technology (CAST) is responsible for testing police equipment. As I previously noted, CAST has not evaluated spit hoods, unlike other police equipment like body worn cameras and CS or PAVA (“pepper”) spray. I checked its website today. There is still no Home Office guidance about spit hoods despite the risks associated with them. I find it odd that CAST dedicates so much time to body worn cameras and not to “spit guards”. No one dies being filmed, but, as I explain here, people can, and do, when wearing a police spit hood.

So, who approved the police’s spit hoods nationally? What criteria did they use? Did they test and approve a particular type or brand of hood? Did they set standards for ethics, training, best practice, and usage monitoring? If no such official approval exists, on what basis does the Met claim that spit hoods are “nationally approved”?

2. “22 forces across the UK”

The Metropolitan Police says that spit hoods are already in use in 22 police forces across the UK. There are 48 forces in the UK. If the Met’s number is correct, the majority (54%) of our police forces do not use spit hoods.

Why not admit that the Force is in the minority?

Pressure

Police spit hood use is not more widespread because individual Chief Constables decide if they are appropriate given the risks. For example, in 2013 West Midlands Police chose not to use them after its Heath, Safety & Welfare Committee found that:

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

And the Hepatitis C Trust and National Aids Trust criticised those who promote the use of police spit hoods for creating an unfounded fear of contracting hepatitis C and HIV from spitting.

Despite this evidence, Chief Constables from police forces which have yet to introduce spit hoods find themselves under pressure from organisations such as the Police Federation.

Senior officers will be watching closely to find out how the public reacts to the Metropolitan Police’s spit hood expansion. The Met is by far the largest police force in the UK. If it escapes proper inquiry then it is likely that the remaining forces will follow suit.

Accountability

The motto of America’s Washington Post newspaper is “democracy dies in darkness”. Cressida Dick, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, might want to consider those words and how she can align them with the 9 Principles of Policing. The Metropolitan Police is avoiding public scrutiny and accountability by its actions.

We live in a democracy, not a military state, but as I have previously discussed, sometimes it doesn’t feel like it. We deserve better.

Read more from Kevin Donoghue, solicitor, on the Donoghue Solicitors blog.