The hood, the bad and the ugly

The death of Daniel Prude in the U.S. in March, has brought the use of anti-spit guards, or ‘Spit-hoods’ as they are sometimes referred to, under renewed scrutiny. Jeff Kenny considers their controversial use

It is reported that Daniel Prude died as a result of asphyxiation after being restrained by police using a ‘spit hood’ in the U.S. Seven police officers were recently suspended in relation to his death, when police body-cam footage of the arrest became public. The incident is now the subject of a grand jury investigation in New York with activists calling for the police involved to be charged with homicide.

In late March, An Garda Síochána announced the purchase of 16,000 anti-spit guards, which it specified would be rolled out as part of PPE for frontline Garda members due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Anti-spit guards have been utilised by international police forces for several years. In the UK, campaign group Liberty indicated that as of February 2019, ‘spit hoods’ were being used by at least 30 of the 43 police forces in England and Wales.

Whilst its recognised that there has always been a threat to Garda members from suspects spitting, the Covid-19 pandemic added a new dimension to such attacks and anti-spit guards offer a defence to the ‘weaponising’ of Covid-19 by dangerous offenders. If needed, the case of frontline worker, Belly Mujinga in the UK, who died as a result of someone spitting on her, highlights the serious risk from individuals deliberately carrying out such assaults.

Critics who oppose the use of anti-spit guards say they are degrading, humiliating and cause undue stress to the person being detained; often referring to their use as ‘medieval’ and ‘barbaric’.

An Garda Síochána has faced intense criticism from the Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL) since the introduction of anti-spit guards in April. Members of the Policing Authority have also expressed concerns about their use by the Force.

On August 26, the ICCL made a submission to An Garda Síochána outlining several issues they had with the continued use of anti-spit guards by police. In the report, the ICCL highlight that the use of ‘spit-hoods’, as they insist anti-spit guards should be called, are tantamount to ‘torture’ due to the ‘sensory deprivation’ inflicted on the person it is placed on. Adding somewhat hyperbolic rhetoric to an already emotive subject.

The deployment of anti-spit guards is recognised as a use of force by An Garda Síochána. As such, Garda members must avail of the Garda Decision Making Model (GDMM), which includes at its core human rights and the Garda Code of Ethics, when deciding to utilise it during an arrest. In addition to stringent oversight of usage, all deployments are reported to the Policing Authority on a monthly basis.

Frontline members deserve the protection offered to them by anti-spit guards. Gardaí have statutory obligations under the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005, a responsibility highlighted by Garda Commissioner Drew Harris in a press briefing in June, when he stated that, “These [attacks] are a significant health and safety risk to our members in the current environment. We must protect them from such attacks.”

Since their introduction on April 8, the most recent figures indicate that anti-spit guards were deployed on 101 occasions, as of the end of August (Gardaí had in excess of one million interactions with the public during this period). Frontline Gardaí were subjected to 167 documented incidents where they were spat or deliberately coughed on during this same timeline. These figures would indicate that Gardaí policed, at least, 66 incidents where frontline members were assaulted in the vilest of manners, without resorting to the use of anti-spit guards.

Members of An Garda Síochána police their communities by consent, a circumstance members are rightly proud of. For the ICCL to imply that Gardaí have adopted a cavalier attitude to the use of anti-spit guards and that their use, “is growing without any sound evidence base that they are necessary, effective or proportionate”, is, respectfully, both disingenuous to hard-working frontline Gardaí and the public they serve in these challenging and unique times.

When dealing with an individual who is willing to resort to the despicable action of spitting in somebody’s face, the use of an anti-spit guard as a last resort in a continuum of graduated response is, it is suggested, absolutely necessary, effective and proportionate.
Garda Jeff Kenny is a member of the Armed Support Unit, DMR and is currently pursuing an MA in International Security and Conflict Studies.

For full and in-depth coverage, see the current printed edition of Garda Review.

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