Spit Hoods in Policing – Comment
Policing is an occupation with special risks. Every day police officers are assaulted and injured in the course of their duties, often minor, but sometimes seriously and very occasionally fatally.
For a considerable time, equipment to protect the police, and the tactics that went with it, moved incredibly slowly. Indeed, little differentiated the Victorian bobby walking the gas lit streets of London, with the modern constable on the beat in the late 1990s. Their protective equipment was nothing more than a 14 inch piece of wood – the police truncheon – tucked discreetly down a special pocket in their uniform trousers, some jangling handcuffs – and, well, that was it.
But in the last decade and a half the police have acquired a significant range of new protective equipment that has both transformed their capability to protect themselves but also radically changed their street appearance. The truncheon was replaced by new metal batons, CS spray, or the more potent PAVA spray, was introduced, and the Taser widely issued as a ‘less-lethal’ weapon to use in certain conflict situations. In many forces, through changes to their uniform, officers also took on a more paramilitary appearance.
And now many police forces are adding something else – the spit hood – a device used to shroud the head to prevent a detained person from spitting or biting an officer.
The arguments put forward by the police for spit hoods are simple and, in one sense, compelling; they prevent exposure to the risk of saliva borne infectious diseases such as hepatitis. But after that, the debate becomes much more contentious and a good deal more ethical.
Some have argued that the spit hood is dehumanising and has strong visual associations with torture. Taking this view, the introduction of the spit hood goes beyond mere debates about the best way to protect police officers doing their job. The central question seems to be is the spit hood fundamentally at odds with some of the important tenets so often cited as making British policing ‘special’ or different from others around the world – things like restraint, legitimacy, consent, fairness, proportionality and adherence to the principle of minimal force, still incidentally largely secured by officers who do not carry firearms?
Although not always an easy journey, the police have evolved broadly to match and be complementary with the kind of state we are. As a liberal, democratic, pluralist, rights-based country, British policing has been deliberately constrained and limited, mainly through restricting its powers and imposing accountability upon it. The spit hood throws up a challenge to this equilibrium because it seems to some to be dramatically out of keeping with what policing represents in society like ours. It’s the very same arguments that have permeated fierce debates on undercover policing, the use of water cannon, and kettling in public order situations. Simply put: are spit hoods too oppressive to be legitimate in a country like ours?
Principle Lecturer in Policing