Metropolitan Police officers are set to trial the use of spit hoods from next month. If you don't know what spit hoods are, take a guess, because you'll probably get it right. SPOILER: they're hoods you put on someone's head to stop them spitting at you.
This news has caused a fair bit of distress, with civil rights group Liberty, human rights group Amnesty International and the campaign group INQUEST all condemning the move. Sara Ogilvie, Policy Officer at Liberty, said in an email to VICE: "Given the vast over-representation of black and minority ethnic people in our criminal justice system, it seems almost inevitable that the sanctioning of spit hoods will result in discrimination."
Many others online share the same kind of opinion, and point out that spit hoods could breach human rights guidelines and cause harm to people they're used on. They're already plenty controversial: figures recently obtained by the Guardian showed that provincial forces used the hoods 513 times last year – on an 11-year-old disabled girl, a 13-year-old schoolboy and a 70-year-old man, among others – despite the fact their use isn't sanctioned by many of the UK's largest police forces.
Up until yesterday, that included London's Met Police. So why the change of heart? Could violence at Notting Hill Carnival have influenced the decision? Ken Marsh MBE, Chairman of the Met Police Federation, told the BBC after the event: "This year colleagues were assaulted, abused and spat at. Forty-three were injured, with eight needing hospital treatment. How can that be right? It's completely and utterly unacceptable."
I gave the Met Police Federation a call to find out why they're trialling the hoods in next month's pilot scheme, and got through to Marsh. "If you were to stand there and let someone spit in your face, I find that quite incredible," he said. "This is one of the most horrible things you can do to another individual – it's absolutely disgusting."
But surely when officers already have handcuffs, pepper spray and batons at their disposal, introducing spit hoods is a bit of an unnecessary measure? Nope, according to Marsh, who said they're a preventative measure against "viral infections and blood contaminations".
He makes a fair point about being spat at: it's not very nice, especially if the saliva contains a virus and that saliva goes directly into your mouth and then you get that virus. But does that really justify giving officers the power to use the hoods, especially when other forces have got around the issue by just providing their staff with safety glasses?
Oliver Sprague, Amnesty International UK's Programme Director, doesn't think so. In an email, he said: "Spit hoods can restrict breathing, create disorientation and be dangerous and extremely distressing. They are little more than a glorified sack. Serious questions must be asked as to whether these restraints, which have been criticised for breaching human rights guidelines, should actually have a role in modern British policing."
I asked Marsh if he agrees that the use of spit hoods breaches any human rights. "This is just another piece of equipment to stop someone behaving in this way," he said. "It's nothing to do with human rights. It won't affect anyone's human rights. It doesn't harm them in any way. What it does is stop said individual spitting at my colleagues."
What about breathing difficulties arising for someone who's been hooded? "Nonsense – it doesn't affect your breathing at all," said Marsh. "Bear in mind people who behave in this way are drunk or on drugs whilst they're behaving like this. They should think about doing those things before they worry about a bit of spit."
As pointed out by Sara Ogilvie from Liberty, the plan has attracted plenty of criticism over the fact the BME community in particular face the threat of being disproportionately targeted. The police have abused their stop and search powers to target young black men for years, and British Transport Police are currently under investigation after footage of their officers hooding and pinning a young black man to the floor was posted online.
"Hooding is likely to be used with other forms of restraint, and so increases the risk of psychological and physical harm, and ultimately death," said Deborah Coles, Director of INQUEST. "This is particularly concerning given what we know about the overrepresentation of people from BME communities and those with mental health problems who die following the use of restraint."
Marsh disagrees that the hoods will be over-used on BME communities. "We've spoken to community leaders, we've engaged with them," he said. "They're fully on board with what we're trying to do. This isn't about trying to put a fear factor in local communities. We don't want to put the fear into any law-abiding citizen on a daily basis. That's not what we're about. We police by consent. We have no intention whatsoever of upsetting people."
The move, he says, is simply a deterrent. But when it has the scope to worsen already fraught police-community relations, it's one that could have perhaps been given a little more thought.
More on VICE: