What are ‘spit hoods,’ and why do police use them?

Seven officers have been suspended over their involvement in the arrest of a black man who died after being pinned down with a 'spit hood' over his head. Source: AP/Rochester Police

Daniel Prude died in Rochester after officers covered his head with a hood. The devices are widely used, but the N.Y.P.D. does not give them to patrol officers.

Shortly before Daniel Prude lost consciousness while police in Rochester, New York, held him down, one of the officers had pulled a white hood from his pocket and slipped it over Prude’s head.

The mesh hood is a common device that the police and correction officers use, known as a “spit hood” or “spit sock.” It was intended to keep Prude, who had been spitting on the ground, from exposing them to disease.

Earlier that night, Prude, who had a history of mental illness, had run out of his brother’s home naked and was behaving erratically, telling at least one person that he had the coronavirus, according to police reports.

The officers went on to hold Prude down on the pavement for two minutes, his head still wrapped in the sack, as he lost consciousness and his pulse stopped. Paramedics restarted his heart, but he died a week later in a hospital. An autopsy found the cause of death was “complications of asphyxia in the setting of physical restraint.”

Prude’s death, along with the jarring body camera footage of him being subdued, has brought new scrutiny to the long-standing use of spit hoods and similar devices by law enforcement.

What is a spit hood?

A spit hood, or spit guard, is a loose, breathable fabric sack that can be placed over a person’s head to prevent them from biting or spitting.

There are many designs, but the hoods usually are made of a porous, breathable fabric, often a mesh that allows officers to see the suspect’s face. Many hoods have an elastic band designed to stay loosely secured around a person’s neck.

The devices are intended to keep an emotionally disturbed person from biting or spitting on an officer, not just to prevent the spread of diseases but also to avoid other injuries.

“People quite frankly underestimate the level of danger that officers can face from individuals that are using their mouths and their teeth,” said Maria Haberfield, a professor of policing science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, in New York City.

The coronavirus pandemic — and the risk that officers could be infected by a suspect’s saliva — have drawn attention to the use of spit hoods, although it is difficult to track whether use of the devices has increased in the last six months.

Who uses them and why?

The use of spit hoods or spit shields is widespread among medics, prison guards and the police, throughout the United States and internationally.

Authorities in many European countries use the device to shield themselves from infectious diseases, and many American police departments also employ them as a restraining device.

Scotland Yard announced last year that it would supply all officers with spit hoods; the Garda, Ireland’s national police force, began deploying the device more widely early this year. Most police departments in the United States have them on hand.

Policies on spit masks vary among major police departments; some will not allow the devices to be used on children or on a person who has been pepper-sprayed.

Chris Petzer, the owner of Handcuff Warehouse, a Virginia-based law enforcement equipment company that supplies spit hoods, said the emergence of the coronavirus has only heightened the growing demand for the devices.

Spit hoods are more often used by corrections officers, in prisons and jails, Petzer said, and many police departments do not issue them to patrol officers.

The New York Police Department is one of the departments that does not give spit guards to patrol officers, a spokesman, Al Baker, said.

Because of the coronavirus epidemic, however, the department has begun issuing them to emergency services officers, who are also trained as medics, on a trial basis, Baker said.

Are spit hoods dangerous?

A medical study published in 2019 found the use of a spit hood produced “no clinically significant changes” in a person’s ability to breathe, provided he or she was healthy.

“Most of the time, they are safe unless a person has an underlying condition,” Haberfield said.

But a spit hood is often used in combination with other restraints, as it was in Prude’s case. After putting the hood on his head, three officers held Prude down, one pressing his head to the pavement, one placing a knee on his back and a third holding down his legs.

Neil Gehlawat, a California lawyer who has sued on behalf of several people who died after being restrained in a spit hood, said the devices can lead to physiological stress, like trouble breathing or an increased heart rate.

“You’ll have the person who is being restrained, usually in a prone position so they’re facedown, there’s already pressure on the diaphragm,” he said. “And then a spit mask is being put on top of that person. That further restricts their ability to breathe.”

He added: “They’re really restricting airflow, and they can often lead to people asphyxiating and dying.”

Have the devices played a role in other deaths?

Spit hoods have been involved in at least 10 deaths in police custody since 2001, although it is difficult to determine how much the spit hood contributed to those deaths.

In April, Carlos Ingram Lopez, a 27-year-old cooking school graduate, died in Tucson, Arizona, after police held him down and covered his face with a blanket and a hood. Like Prude, Lopez was in the middle of a mental health breakdown.

Jacob Bauer died in Pleasanton, California, in August 2018 after police restrained him with batons and Tasers and applied a spit mask to his face. Prosecutors later cleared the officers involved in Bauer’s death of criminal wrongdoing.

Even in cases where someone has not died, the use of spit hoods has stirred controversy and prompted lawsuits.

Police officers in Sacramento, California, for instance, placed a hood on the head of a 12-year-old boy, who officers said was spitting at them, in April 2019. A video of the incident went viral online, and the boy’s family sued the Sacramento police department for $100,000 ($137,500 AUD), claiming the boy had been traumatised.