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Spit Hoods Are Adding Fuel to the Fire in America’s Police Brutality Dispute

They’re meant to protect police, hospital workers and prison guards from infectious disease. But their lynching-like appearance indicates something much darker

The story starts with a 12-year-old black boy, under five feet tall and skinny like a beanpole, chased into a corner of a fast-food drive-thru by two Sacramento police officers and a security guard. It’s unclear exactly what crime he’s accused of, and several bystanders try to intervene, including a man recording cellphone video who demands that the officers uncuff the boy and call his parents instead. You can hear the boy’s youth in his voice, pitched higher by fear and anger. The officers, meanwhile, appear convinced that the arrest has to be done. They drag the child to the patrol vehicle as he struggles and questions what’s happening. As he nears the back seat of the patrol car, the video shows an officer appear to wipe her cheek. “Yeah, I spit on you all, how do you like that shit?” the boy replies.

The two officers try to push the child into the car and fail, then opt to tip him onto the asphalt face-first. After a few moments, backup officers arrive, and one grabs a small white square object out of his pocket — a “spit hood” designed to protect officers from the bodily fluids of the people they’re arresting. He unfurls the object and puts it over the boy’s head. “Take the bag off my head!” the boy yells. In the background, you hear observers begin to protest the use of the hood. Someone screams, “That’s just a boy!

Last week, the Sacramento Police Department became the subject of outrage with the release of an arrest video from April 28th that rapidly went viral because of the image of the young boy writhing on the ground, held in place by multiple officers with a white hood over his head. The child was allegedly detained outside of a local street festival after “running away” from a private security guard, who claimed the boy was asking people to buy him things at Walgreens and guilty of “trespassing.” The officers (who are all white) noticed the interaction and intervened.

In the video, you see the boy compose himself as a swarm of officers surround him, trying to block observers from getting closer. “He’s not spitting no more. So you can take the bag off his head if he’s not spitting, right?” the man recording the video says. “They just don’t want to risk it,” an officer replies. The boy tells the officers that he “can’t breathe,” but they ignore him. Even as he calms down and sits up, with only one officer holding onto him, the hood stays on. Eventually, he’s dragged onto his feet and pushed into the patrol car.

A spit hood is a simple tool: just a bit of mesh, secured by an elastic band that stretches around the neck. But this little bundle has sparked another round of furious debate about the nature of policing in 2019, stoking flames of past incidents of police brutality. Police shootings continue to enrage communities and advocates for police reform, especially when they come with a lack of prosecution for the officers, as in the case of Stephon Clark in Sacramento or Eric Garner in New York City, among many other examples. But even when nobody dies in an altercation with law enforcement, the countless allegations of physical beatings and mental humiliation from police continue to influence the conversation about what role policing should play in our lives, particularly for people of color who are disproportionately impacted in the U.S.

The public trepidation toward the spit hood, defended by law enforcement as a necessary tool for patrolling America circa 2019, reflects a new and complicated Rorschach test for those who police and those who are policed.

It’s unclear when spit hoods were initially invented and used by police — several experts I spoke to couldn’t speak to the origins of the tool. Online searches for stories, images and video of hood use suggest that they’ve been a standard tool for both U.S. and British police forces for well over a decade, albeit a tool that’s still only used in a small number of arrests. Most law enforcement agencies don’t track spit-hood use (and don’t consider it a “use-of-force” situation such as firing their weapon or physically striking a suspect). There is, however, a good deal of truth to the feeling that spit-hood use has become more popular, not simply made more visible.

That’s the conclusion drawn by Chris Patzer, the owner of restraint distributor Handcuff Warehouse, which primarily contracts with large government agencies. He tells me that there’s been a “dramatic increase” in the sale of spit hoods in recent years, with no sign that a slump is coming, even with the tool making negative headlines. “I’d say sales have quadrupled in the last five years. We’re selling them to police and corrections facilities, as well as hospitals,” he says. “It’s not just one market, but multiple types of organizations that want them.”

Patzer’s company offers a number of different spit protectors, including models that offer additional paneling over the mouth, to provide better protection from bites, and some that feature more elaborate straps. By far the most popular, though, is the basic mesh-and-elastic bag used in the arrest of the boy in Sacramento. When asked whether he has any opinions on the safety or efficacy of the soft mesh spit hoods he sells, Patzer’s answer is pretty quick: “I don’t think it’s a dangerous thing. I know it’s controversial, especially in Europe and Britain specifically,” he says. “But the biggest complaint we get is that often, the basic fine mesh doesn’t contain all the fluids. It can kind of seep out. So even if you throw up with a hood on, it’s probably not going to choke you. That’s by design.”

In the wake of criticism of spit-hood use, some agencies have tried to demonstrate the harmlessness of spit hoods by explaining the material and construction. Curious about what it feels like, I order the white mesh model made by Chicago Handcuff Company, a major manufacturer used by U.S. law enforcement. The hood feels almost weightless in my hand, but that makes the experience of donning one almost stranger for it. All I can feel is the light pressure of the elastic band on my throat, yet my vision is blurred by the fabric, which clings to my face.

Two senior police officers I speak to, in L.A. and Berkeley, say that there’s a standard protocol for when to use a spit hood and claim that the safety risks are low, at least when deployed correctly. “I’ve been spit on a number of times, and that can be anything from deeply unpleasant to legit dangerous if they have some sort of illness, infection or are spitting things like blood at me,” the Berkeley officer, who’s been on the force for five years and requested to remain anonymous, tells me. “I’ve used spit hoods, almost always when you have a suspect that’s immediately combative and either starting to spit at people or threatening to do it. Of course the hood pisses them off. Everything you do as a cop pisses them off, depending on the person. But I’ve never had qualms about it being unsafe. It makes our lives easier, which helps us get the suspect figured out and calmed down.”

His counterpart on the LAPD, who is a nearly two-decade veteran, agrees. “Spit masks are what they are. They’re masks designed to protect officers from being spat upon. One of the most ugly, disrespectful, and yes, potentially dangerous things anyone can do to another person is spit on them,” he tells me. “As an officer, I’ve been spat on by people with diseases. Other officers have been spat on by bloody suspects or detainees who we place on mental health holds. Whether the risk is a communicable disease or a common cold, society shouldn’t allow the age, race or sex of someone who assaults an officer become the emotional linchpin for taking away another tool for us to keep ourselves or our families from real risk — we’re people too.”

The LAPD officer notes that he often works with people who have mental health disorders, and the increasing use of spit hoods coincides with an uptick in incidents in which police must act as first responders to a mental health emergency. That’s a main reason why spit hoods are used so frequently in emergency rooms, and those who defend the practice question why police are under fire for a tool that medical professionals already rely on. The LAPD officer also blames a culture in which cops are viewed as “societal punching bags.” “I wouldn’t doubt an increase in sales based on the climate and mood toward officers today,” he says.

This is a view mirrored in some ways by Maria Haberfeld, a noted expert on police training and a professor of police science at the John Jay Institute for Criminal Justice. “Police departments in the U.S. and around the world are continually experimenting with new restraint tools as the public is less and less compliant,” she says.

That includes the increase of Taser training and even experimental technologies like a weapon that shoots a “lasso” around a suspect to take them down. The takeaway for spit hoods, Haberfeld notes, is that spitting can be as dangerous to an officer as getting stuck by a dirty hypodermic needle (at least in the case of diseases like TB and strep) and remains a high priority. There are indeed examples of health professionals who are forced to take strong antibiotics as a precaution to spit exposure, and she says the police have the right to protect themselves not just from obvious violence, but all sorts of threats that prevent them from doing their job. “Optics aside, no one should demand of officers to become victims,” Haberfeld concludes.

So the consensus seems to suggest that spit hoods are about as minimal and safe as a police restraint can get, and I can’t argue after sitting on the couch with a hood on, twiddling my thumbs. But, curiosity piqued, I decide to try a series of literal “stress tests” based on the situations and body positions in which a spit hood might be applied. I crank out jumping jacks, to get my heart rate up. I start spitting with the hood on, mimicking the tenacious behavior of a particularly pissed-off person. I tie my hands around my back and fall on my stomach, feeling the mesh catch on my lips and hair. I spit some more, trying to imitate vomit, and the thick liquid starts to clog the mesh around my mouth. I’m patently aware of how ridiculous I must look, writhing on the linoleum of my apartment kitchen, spit everywhere. But the self-inflicted stress is working — the mesh starts to stick to my mouth, I choke on a few breaths, and then the feeling of claustrophobia begins to kick in.

I look at the clock. It’s been roughly four minutes.  

The safety of the hood may be seen as common sense by law enforcement officials, but a number of disastrous cases have brought to light the ways in which spit-hood use can go wrong, even with officials within reach. In October 2015, an extremely intoxicated Tennessee man died in custody while wearing a spit hood, which officers kept on him despite his stating that he couldn’t breathe. Officers only discovered he’d fallen unconscious when they pulled off the hood and saw vomit stream out. Also in 2015, a 19-year-old man with a reported history of mental health problems died after being pepper-sprayed, restrained and hooded in a Florida jail, where he screamed that he couldn’t breathe and begged for someone to take off the hood for roughly 30 straight minutes, according to inmate witnesses. In 2013, 41-year-old James Perry died in a Milwaukee jail after suffering a seizure, hitting his head and then being spit-hooded despite his protests that he couldn’t breathe. (The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that an officer dismissed his protests by stating, “You’re talking, you’re breathing.”) In May 2010, a Seattle man suffered irreversible brain damage after being hit and hooded while bleeding and vomiting, which allegedly caused him to stop breathing.

Some spit hoods are more breathable than others, but generally, law enforcement experts tell me they’re preferred because the thin mesh allows officers to gauge a suspect’s eyes and facial movements and intervene before they, for instance, fall unconscious. But as Edwin Budge, a Seattle attorney who has worked on multiple spit-hood cases, told the Guardian in 2016: “They’re breathing hard, or attempting to breathe hard, because they have a greater need for air. When you put that all together, the combination of forcible restraint, the increased need for air… [hoods] are, in my opinion, extraordinarily dangerous.”

Proponents of spit-hood use point out that they’re still deployed rarely, and that a small number of injuries or misuse doesn’t discount the usefulness of the hood. But their negative impact may cast a much bigger shadow if you consider the dehumanizing effect of the hood, and how it shapes public perception of police, argues Jody David Armour, a professor of law at the University of Southern California who has done extensive research on the intersection of law, policing, ethics and race. Armour and other critics say the spit hood is reminiscent of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay or the use of hoods in lynchings, and several government agencies have indeed publicly debated the balance between the practicality of spit hoods and the uncomfortable public optics of its use.

“When I’m looking at a 12-year-old black boy looking like a picture out of Abu Ghraib, frankly, I couldn’t help but see it as part of a pattern, rather than as an isolated incident,” Armour says of the Sacramento incident. “It connected to, for example, a broader pattern of SWAT teams kicking in doors to serve simple warrants that could’ve been handled in lots of other ways. It feels like a giant, general worsening of the relationship between the police and the community they’re sworn to uphold and protect.”

Armour points to instances in which the mere threat of spitting in a moment of anger, by someone who is being detained, led to the use of a spit hood, which in turn escalated the emotions of the situation even further. While police departments can claim that spit hoods are only used under narrow criteria, the onus remains on the officer to decide when and where to use a hood, he says. “At the end of the day, a spit hood isn’t considered a use of force, so they have a broader latitude. The police can exercise a lot of discretion in how they apply the tool,” he continues. “And so, when they’re instructed, ‘Oh, any time someone’s spitting at you, you can put a spit hood on them.’ Well, an officer could interpret someone talking back too much and spraying some moisture as spitting. They could say you were resisting too much or starting to move your mouth weird.”

In that sense, the debate for Armour and many other critics is how the spit hood fits into a spectrum of offenses by police in moments of aggression or frustration. For some, the spit hood is a practically harmless tool used only if you’re the “idiot” who spit on a cop (Twitter is full of these kinds of replies to the Sacramento controversy). For others, the spit hood is another way for a police officer to flex their might in everyday interactions, ultimately degrading people who they judge as out of line. “Every viral video is just the tip of the iceberg. The unexplored ice below is the indignity that people from a lot of stereotyped groups, like blacks and Latinos and sometimes young people, face on a day-to-day basis because of unethical policing,” says Armour.

Though Haberfeld believes the increasing public criticism toward police officers has made the job more challenging, and doesn’t condemn the use of spit hoods, she remains deeply critical of the way U.S. police departments train their staff. “A lack of respect from the public leads to less compliance, which in turn generates new forms of restraints. It’s a vicious circle that will be broken only through a transformed approach to the police profession,” she tells me.

What does that transformation look like? Haberfield’s decades of study, on top of her own experience in the Israeli military and police, has led her to view U.S. police training as seriously undercooked. Much of the most visible problems and controversies could be reformed over time, she says, by increasing the length of police training — including making the academy process similar to a four-year college program, rather than the six months new recruits get in most U.S. police departments. Though she didn’t comment specifically on the Sacramento incident, she tells me that advanced de-escalation practices are critical and not practiced as often as they should be. “Communication skills are fundamental in achieving compliance, but communication skills are definitely neglected in agencies’ use-of-force training, despite the fact that ‘command voice’ is a concept they’re trained in,” she notes.

There’s no clear-cut alternative to the fine mesh spit hood, although some suggest moving away from the “hood” design or giving officers flexible plastic face shields to use for protection instead. There are structural issues at hand, too, including the fact that U.S. police remain underprepared to respond to mental health emergencies. Perhaps tracking the use of a spit hood during arrests could allow for more transparency, and collaboration between the public and police on best practices, Armour says. (Police in Berkeley, which came under fire for its use of spit hoods last year, are currently discussing this possibility.)

On one hand, this soft little restraint seems like a small facet of the bigger fight to reform and improve policing, and many people have dismissed the controversy of spit-hood use as manufactured outrage. But the activists who are hammering Sacramento PD for deploying one on a child — a child that arguably didn’t commit a crime to begin with — can’t help but see it differently. Armour himself struggles to reconcile an officer’s “deserved right to protection” with the image of a boy in a hood, lying on the ground, yelling that he can’t breathe while multiple adults hold him down. The way the scene escalated makes Armour recall several instances when he was harassed by police, over things like “loitering” in a hotel where he’d booked a room and pulled over in a Mercedes while driving to class.

“This is what a lot of black folks recognize when they see an incident like this,” he says of the Sacramento arrest. “They don’t see this as an isolated incident. They see it as a symptom of a more systemic illness that has lots of different manifestations.”