I have not looked forward to publishing this blog. Spithoods (or spit guards or spit and bite guards depending on who is talking about them, I use hoods/guards) are contentious, speakers often polarised in their views and, in order to make any progress, we have to get into detailed debate. This debate often seems to enrage camps on both sides and it can feel like there is a lot more heat than light.
My friend jokingly labeled me a ‘spitting enthusiast’ after a fairly aggressive television interview. I am keen to open this blog by clearly stating that I am not. I am not naive about the violence police officers and staff are faced with nor the force that they use to restrain detainees. It is, of course, awful to be spat at and that horror is often compounded by fear of infection and medical regimes that have to follow.
Whilst I am no spitting fan, I am enthusiastic about human rights, safe custody and avoiding harm. So, stay with me whilst I explore some of these issues.
Human rights and dignity
ICVs make unannounced visits to police custody as part of work to prevent harm and ill-treatment of detainees. We monitor the rights and treatment of detainees. This is a crucial part of a democratic state where we should be free to live without torture.
We are in place to look at the world from the detainees’ point of view. Detainees do not present in simple ways and often have complex needs. They may have poor mental health, be intoxicated or have chaotic lives. We need to consider the impact of hooding on the individual detainee and the harm that it can cause them, particularly if they are suffering from combined vulnerabilities. Spitting is unpalatable, but so is placing a hood on an 11 year old disabled girl in police custody. So – where is the balance here? I am often told that ‘if people don’t like it then they shouldn’t spit’. This is a powerful argument, but it assumes that the world is simpler than it actually is. Human rights and preventing ill-treatment, must apply to everyone regardless of whether they spit or don’t; if they are vulnerable or not. Human rights must be universal and absolute or they are worthless.
Policing works best when it has the support of the community and we prize ‘policing by consent’. Spithoods challenge this idea in quite a significant way.
Hooding a detainee is an emotive action that can alienate specific communities or the public as a whole. Policing does not occur in a vacuum and hooding has echoes of maltreatment and abuse from as far back as Abu Graib and Guantanamo Bay. Whilst officers rightly argue that British spithoods are nothing like this, previous abuses outside of the UK remain in the public consciousness and provoke a visceral response. This has not been helped by high profile incidents such as the restraint of Thomas Orchard where the public has seen footage of a restraint belt applied across the face of a mentally unwell man who later died.
This public’s response is also apparent from the use of a spitguard on Ik Aihie by British Transport Police. The police stated that Aihie threatened to spit at officers and so, arguably, use of a spitguard was proportionate to protect the officers arresting him. Nonetheless, the police faced claims of excessive force following the incident. It’s clear that those around the arrest are upset by the use of the spit guard and are quoted as stating that they “understand that it makes a person feel like a dog.”
The police must confront the reality that hooding looks awful and can spark controversy. There needs to be an open discussion on their use and public understanding and acceptance in order to maintain public support.
Protecting the Protectors
I have asked police about their experiences of spitting. The Police Federation is running a campaign called ‘Protect the Protectors’. It calls for changes to legislation, tougher sentences, access to training and equipment, improved data and increased support.
Our society relies on emergency services and we often depend on those who are prepared to get into harm’s way for us. Many police officers and staff pour their heart, soul and strength into the job, going above and beyond to protect victims and pursue justice. It seems intrinsically fair to offer them protection.
One officer said that she’d prefer to be repeatedly punched rather than spat at. Others have highlighted the risk of disease that they face, unpleasant medical regimes and anxiety following an incident. So, let’s look at the practical realities of spitguards and how they may be used.
What is safe?
A key debating point is safety of both detainees and the police. Inquest reports have highlighted face coverings in deaths in detention, so are spithoods safe?
I do not think that we know yet. Police can procure many different types of spitguard. I have worn some and one feels easier to breathe in than another. The Police Federation told me that some medical research is underway with results expected soon. We wait to see, but police must be confident in using the kit they are issued, for the sake of both staff and detainee.
What about the safety of police officers and staff? The Police Federation campaign argues that spitguards prevent harm to staff. However, others argue that it’s not this simple. For example, the guidance on HIV specifically cites that “you cannot get HIV from spitting” and “there has never been a reported case in the UK of infection from biting and only a handful of possible cases around the world.”
Police representatives cite additional research and argue that detainees can spit blood from their own mouths into a cut on an officer and that the guards reduce the risk of transmission. HIV is not the only concern and officers argue that employers have a proactive duty to protect their staff from preventable illness.
Further research should bring clarity and reduce and balance risks on both sides.
Training and guidance
Some areas have been using spithoods for some times; others are rolling out pilots or wider use. However, I understand that there is no single method of training and guidance for England and Wales. I have been told that this is under development and will be released soon.
There are many questions about spitguards – when officers should be able to use a hood – is it when someone is threatening to spit? Is it after they already have? If so, is that effective or punitive? How should a detainee be looked after whilst they have a hood on? What aftercare should they get when it comes off? When are the times when hoods should never be used? These are difficult questions and ones that officers will need to consider in very short timeframes.
I await the training and guidance and, again, hope that it provides reassurance. If we give police officers the kit then we need to give them robust, evidence-based support, training and guidance on how they use it to protect both detainees and staff.
Police now record and return data on use of force and should have governance in place to monitor its use. This safeguard ensures that any malpractice is picked up and dealt with. In addition to internal governance, bodies such as ICVs, HMICFRS and HMIP and the IPCC can comment and make recommendations on use of force.
It is difficult to oversee appropriate use of spithoods when there is no national guidance to use as a benchmark. ICVs can report on anything they are uncomfortable with but, again, we await guidance to be able to pass on professional advice to our members.
If not hoods, then what?
Around half of police forces do not use spitguards, so what do they do instead and is this any better?
Ideally, there should be sufficient staff to enable time and patience to de-escalate confrontations without force. Where neighbourhood teams know their community they will be more aware of individual triggers and calming measures. Some officers said they might be less likely to use force if they are not under pressure to move to the next job or if they have other officers close at hand. De-escalating is clearly better than use of force and something officers were keen to use.
Officers told me that, without additional staff or spitguards, they need to use greater force to push a detainee’s head away. This may be more painful and damaging to the detainee than using a spitguard. This is an important point to weigh up in the debate. Police are not always able to get to a perfect resolution and, instead, make the best decision they can with what they have. It could be that spitguards are the best tool available for an individual detainee.
This debate is still developing and research continues. It’s clear that spitguards and spitting are emotive subjects. We could argue that they are the best available way to prevent police getting spat on. Conversely, we can argue that they are unsafe and inhumane.
On ending this blog, there are two things that seem clear to me – spithoods are being used and rolled out further. Secondly, there is still much that we do not know and research, training and guidance that is in development.
I am keen to see how this all develops, there are high stakes and we need to come to a sensible position that protects police officers, detainees and our model of policing by consent. This is a difficult challenge; we need more information and debate to respond effectively. We welcome feedback from our members and their volunteers to help to get to the right outcome.