Promoting Justice /
Protecting Rights

Chief Constable criticised for spit hoods roll-out in defiance of Policing Board

Amnesty International, CAJ, Children’s Law Centre, and Include Youth have criticised a decision by the Chief Constable of the Police Service Northern Ireland (PSNI) to give spit hoods to 4,000 more officers in defiance of the Policing Board and in light of the possible increased risk of Covid-19 infection to both police and members of the public as a result of use of the controversial devices.

In November 2020, the Northern Ireland Policing Board recommended their immediate phasing out in its reportReview of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) Response to Covid 19. Instead, PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne has started distributing spit hoods to 4,000 additional police officers.

New figures show that, to date, the PSNI has used spit hoods 95 times. They were used on children (aged 15, 16 and 17) on eight occasions. In 81% of cases (68 out of 84 incidents) of their use by the PSNI in 2020, spit hoods were used on people with disabilities.

The figures have come to light in a document published as part of a PSNI equality impact assessment launched this week, almost a year after the introduction of the devices.

Patrick Corrigan, Northern Ireland Director of Amnesty International, said: “The decision to roll out spit hoods, rather than withdraw them from use as advised by the Policing Board, is shocking.

“It is disturbing that in more than eight out of ten incidents, the PSNI has used spit hoods on people with disabilities and, on eight occasions, on children.

“The Chief Constable rushed to deploy spit hoods without evidence that they are effective in preventing the transmission of Covid-19. Now he is doubling down on that flawed decision, in outright defiance of the Policing Board.

“Placing a hood over someone’s head is a significant use of force and one that raises key concerns over cruel and degrading treatment, as well as serious potential health risks.

“These devices must be withdrawn from use, as called for by the Policing Board.”

Paddy Kelly, Director of the Children’s Law Centre, said: “The Children’s Law Centre are extremely concerned that eight spit and bite guards were applied to children during the last year. In the cases of one 16 year-old and one 15 year-old, two spit and bite guards were applied during the same incident. This use of force must have been a frightening experience for these children.

“Their use on children is even more concerning given that children who come in contact with police are more likely to have a disability, mental ill-health or a learning disability.  A police officer using a spit hood on a child cannot know if a child has a learning disability or suffers from asthma.

“In the light of medical evidence that the use of spit and bite hoods may increase the risk of Covid-19 infection to both police and members of the public, there can be absolutely no justification for their use on children. Spit and bite guards should be withdrawn in compliance with the Policing Board’s report of November 2020.

“We and other civil society organisations have now written to the Policing Board to ask them what steps they are taking to ensure their clear recommendation that all spit hoods by withdrawn by the end of 2020 is followed.”

Amnesty International, CAJ, the Children’s Law Centre, and Include Youth have written to Doug Garrett, chair of the Policing Board, ahead of their meeting tomorrow (Thursday 4 March), to ask the Board what steps they are taking to ensure their clear recommendation that all spit hoods by withdrawn by the end of 2020 is followed.

In a June 2020 letter, the PSNI revealed to Amnesty that the manufacturers explicitly declare that spit hoods do not provide protection against COVID-19 spread, stating: “The product will not prevent aerosols from coughing or sneezing and is therefore not an effective means to prevent Covid-19”.

Following this admission by the PSNI that spit hoods would not prevent Covid-19 transmission, Amnesty warned that the application of the hood could actually  increase the risk of infection for police officers, as well compromise the health of those suffering breathing difficulties as a result of the virus.

Amnesty’s policing experts warned that the process of fitting the hood, and the likely ensuing struggle would result in a ‘cloud of virus particles’ as the struggle is likely to be a ‘significant aerosol generating event’. Once placed over someone’s head, the spit hoods themselves would do nothing to prevent the further spread of the virus via coughing, sneezing or exhalation. The use of spit hoods could therefore not only fail to offer the promised protection, but could in fact place police staff in greater peril.

Outside of potential risks to officer safety, Amnesty is also concerned about the potential risks of using these devices on individuals who are ill with COVID-19, or in recovery from it. It is known that COVID-19 causes severe breathing difficulties, including damage to the lungs and airways. Any use of force that can restrict or impair breathing in these circumstances therefore presents additional risks of adverse outcomes.  In addition, any struggle, panic, stress, or anxiety caused by the act of applying and using a spit hoods is likely to cause extra stress on the respiratory system irrespective of the breathability of the hood itself.

Please direct media enquiries to Robyn Scott, Communications & Equality Coalition Coordinator, on robyn@caj.org.uk or 075 1994 1203.

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