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The issue of spit guards

Having been a police officer, I understand first-hand how horrific it is to be spat at or bitten. I have experienced both personally.

The issue of spit guards

Beyond the initial shock, the possibility of contracting HIV and hepatitis cannot be ruled out during the treatment period, which can last months. The psychological effect on the officer and their loved ones is huge. In many ways, the aftermath is actually worse than the assault itself. 

The principle that police officers and staff should not be spat at is beyond dispute; but what remains open to question is whether spit guards are the best method through which to ensure that this is effectively and safely achieved.

Today, an officer from Hertfordshire Police told the BBC that in 95% of cases, spit guards are used after officers have been spat at, when the damage is already done. Given the apparent difficulties in pre-empting if somebody is going to spit, I question whether spit guards really provide a practical solution to the problem.

Legislative change would appear to be one area where we can make a difference. I am currently writing to all Dorset MPs, asking them to lobby for stronger sentencing in order to put a proper deterrent in place to dissuade people from undertaking such vile and disgusting attacks. 

This is understandably an emotive issue, but it is important not to lose sight of the key issues. In addition to the welfare of police officers and staff, we must also consider the welfare of the person doing the spitting. 

Many people who spit or bite are in mental crisis, under the influence of alcohol and drugs, or sometimes all three. By their actions, they are clearly experiencing high levels of anxiety at the time of arrest. This makes them vulnerable.

There does not appear to be any international human rights standards, decisions or judgments specifically assessing the lawfulness of the use of spit guards, but we do know that there are clear risks involved with their use. Putting a hood on someone can cause serious injury or worse.

Spit guards do not appear to be used in Europe, and do not appear to be used in the NHS or the Prison Service. Knowing that other professions face the same challenges as the police service, I am confident that there must be other alternatives which can be considered.

There is a lack of consistency across the UK as to whether forces should adopt spit guards, and if they do, the circumstances in which they should be deployed.  

With the absence of clear national direction, police forces appear to be sleepwalking into an age where officers are being equipped to ‘hood’ detainees, at the same time as using leg braces, ankle braces and handcuffs. The potential dangers are obvious. 

It is my view that a number of important questions remain unanswered: 
•             What is the scale of the problem nationally?
•             What alternatives are available that some forces successfully use already?
•             What measures are in place to ensure appropriate use with regards to vulnerable detainees?
•             How should officers alter tactics between a detainee spitting at the point of arrest and a person spitting in custody? 
•             Why are different forces using different equipment?
•             Could tougher sentencing be considered to act as a stronger deterrent to spitting?
•             What do other organisations that face such a threat do?
•             What are the implications of public opinion, what do the public think?

Given the void of research and guidance and the inconsistent application in practice, I am not convinced that I would feel empowered by the availability of spit guards if I were an operational police officer today.

Police officers and staff often encounter dangerous situations in carrying out their duties; they are asked to make difficult decisions and they put themselves in harm’s way in order to keep their communities safe. It is therefore vital that we provide them with well-considered, effective and ethical solutions to minimise the risks that they and those they come into contact with face. 

As well as being PCC for Dorset, I am the Chair of the Independent Custody Visiting Association (ICVA) and on behalf of my Board, I have written to the Home Secretary formally raising our concern at the lack of research, policy, governance and public consultation in relation to spit guards.

Just this week, a video of a Dorset bus driver being spat at has gone viral. This is clearly an issue that warrants full and proper debate.  I hope that the Home Secretary will commission a review into spit guard practices and alternative solutions as soon as possible.

Martyn Underhill
Chair of Independent Custody Visiting Association (ICVA) 
Dorset Police and Crime Commissioner

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