Spit hoods – a question of transparency

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Spit hoods – a question of transparency

I must admit I’d not heard of spit hoods until earlier this year when I read reports that the IPCC had criticised Sussex Police for using one on a disabled 11-year old, and then again when a complaint was made against BTP for using one during an arrest at London Bridge station. Apparently, some forces such as Police Scotland routinely issue them to all officers, while others such as West Midlands Police and the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) do not authorise them for use at all. Yesterday the Metropolitan Police announced that they would be trialling the use of spit hoods in custody suites, and then later put the trial on hold, apparently at the behest of the London Mayor’s Office.

I followed the debate fairly closely yesterday and would make a number of observations.

First, police officers experience spitting and biting in the course of their duties and in some cases have contracted contagious diseases as a result. Any officer who is spat on or bitten where there is a contamination risk faces long waits while medical tests are completed to confirm whether or not they have been infected, during which they may have to take preventative (for example, anti-viral) medication. Given these risks, serving officers clearly want to be able to be able to protect themselves, and there seems to be clear support among officers for the use of spit hoods in certain circumstances. Those who have used them say they are highly effective and only used appropriately and proportionately. Apparently, complaints are rare (although I’ve not seen any data to verify that claim).

Second, if my experience is anything to go by, and a straw poll of colleagues and family members suggests it is not unusual, many if not most members of the public will not have heard of spit hoods until very recently perhaps even until yesterday if at all. That may extend to include members of campaigning organisations, politicians, the media and others. Most will probably never have seen one, never mind had a chance to handle one. As a result, their initial reactions are likely to be instinctive and ill-informed, and it should not be a surprise that they haven’t thought about either the necessity of spit hoods or what the alternatives’ might be (a common complaint from serving and former officers on Twitter yesterday). It seems plausible that this unfamiliarity is likely to extend to detained suspects, and one could ask whether that might make the experience of being hooded more traumatic than it could otherwise be.

Third, it seems reasonable to observe that hooding is a subject that is inevitably highly emotive, political and fraught with negative connotations. Hooding’ sounds paramilitary, intended to disorient and frighten, and conjures up images of abuses such as those committed in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. It should be obvious that the idea the police might hood someone will be contentious.

Fourth, in the case of the MPS it seems clear that although they had undertaken some consultation before announcing their trial, it was fairly small scale and did not engage with the wider public, media or, apparently, politicians. Announcing a pause to their trial, the MPS said in a statement yesterday that a consultation process regarding [the use of spit guards] has taken place and involved community advisors from Newham’s Independent Advisory Group, in addition to local magistrates and judicial staff’. (Their use of language spit guards not hoods is notable.)

Fifth, maybe I’ve missed it, but I’m not aware of any attempt by a police force, the National Police Chiefs’ Council or College of Policing to engage and educate the public about the risks confronting officers when dealing with suspects who spit and bite, and the options (with their implications) available to police forces to protect their officers including do nothing’, which after all has been and continues to be the position of many forces. There is no point in serving and former officers taking to Twitter to complain that the public misunderstands them when the issue at hand has never been explained, and where biting, spitting and the use of spit hoods when it does happen is very often away from the public gaze, for example in the custody environment.

My instinct is that the general public would be supportive of officers being issued with spit hoods once they are reassured about what a spit hood actually is, that all possible alternatives have been considered and found to be inferior, and that some kind of published and readily available national standard has been set and met for the specification of the hoods themselves and the circumstances in which they might be used (with particular reference to how vulnerable people including children might be dealt with). The police service needs to anticipate concerns about misuse, where the strongest reservations are likely to sit, and be able to respond to them in a way that is realistic and credible. That will very likely be much closer to the kind of monitoring and reporting that applies to Taser rather than handcuffs, and might for example include a condition that body worn video is in use at the time.

The MPS should not apologise for wanting to better protect its officers, nor should officers apologise for wanting to be able to protect themselves and in a way that minimises their use of force. But it is clear that announcing a spit hood trial without first explaining to the public why it is necessary and what it means badly underappreciated the likely strength of feeling among the public and others. (There are parallels here with the College of Policing’s plans for degree-level entry into the police service, where the rationale and detail have taken a long time to catch up with first impressions.)

Language matters. Public engagement matters. Legitimacy matters. The inconvenient truth is that some things have to be done slower time’. If I were the London Mayor I would want to support the trial but also refer the use of spit hoods to the London Police Ethics Panel for consideration. The strong likelihood is that the Panel would offer their support for the use of spit hoods, but also provide useful guidance on where ethical dilemmas are likely to arise and how they may be mitigated. Amongst other things that would offer greater transparency to what is clearly a contentious issue and help reassure the public.