Photo credit: Sandra Sanders/Shutterstock

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In September, the world saw a video of Rochester, New York, police putting a spit hood over Daniel Prude’s head and face as he sat naked and handcuffed on a cold, wintry street. The mentally ill man was dead a week later. His death, the medical examiner declared, was homicide due to “complications of asphyxia in the setting of physical restraint.”

In November 2019, Black military veteran Gregory Edwards died alone in a Florida jail cell after being pepper sprayed, hooded, and strapped to a restraining chair.

And on February 4, 2021, Jose Albert Lizarraga Garcia died in a grocery store parking lot after being wrestled to the ground and put in a spit hood by police in Indio, California. Like Eric Garner, George Floyd, and others before him, Garcia cried out “I can’t breathe” before he suffocated to death. 

While police shootings and chokeholds have come under increasing scrutiny, our national review of police use-of-force policies has paid little attention to spit hoods. Spit hoods are used on the grounds that they protect police from infectious disease and biting.

But they are inhumane, often deadly, and should be banned. 

The “spit hood”—also known as a “spit sock” or “spit guard”—is a relatively new piece of equipment used by police and prison guards to protect themselves from those in their custody, but they are also often used to punish people who do not quickly submit to an arrest. The spit hood does something else remarkable: it turns police into the potential victims, rather than the perpetrators, of violence. The very premise of a spit hood—a device to protect police from a “dangerous person”—is part of a larger process of transforming police officers into potential victims of the mentally ill, bystanders, potential suspects, and even children. 

At a time when police departments around the country have been identified as centers of systematic abuse, racial profiling, and repeated shooting and killings (over 1,000 people were killed by police in 2020, half of them Black), identifying police officers as potential targets of harm from citizens justifies maintaining or increasing the use of force. Even as calls to dismantle, defund, and rethink policing entirely have increased, exaggerating the dangers faced by police now serves as a rallying cry for the so-called “Blue Lives Matter” movement. 

The idea that police need protection from citizens’ “bodily fluids” arose at another highly politicized moment: the gay rights and AIDS street activism of the 1980s. The phrase “bodily fluids” entered the popular lexicon as a euphemism for how HIV spread via semen, blood, or vaginal secretions. At demonstrations, police officers donned rubber gloves to protect themselves from what some saw as a primarily “homosexual disease” that, if contracted, was reasonably seen as a death sentence.  

But these gloves were also a sign of bigotry. In the late eighties, many police officers in the United States, like much of the general public, tended to wrongly view all gay men as dangerous disease carriers. When the queer activist group ACT-UP protested in Washington, D.C. during an international AIDS conference in 1987, D.C. police put on yellow rubber gloves to “protect” themselves from catching the virus from demonstrators. Protesters retaliated, chanting, “Your gloves don’t match your shoes!”  

These activists were mocking police power, but also homophobic ignorance. Scientists knew by 1987 that touching a person with AIDS, or even kissing, would not transmit HIV. ACT-UP posters and gay and lesbian “kiss-ins” were specifically designed to push back against the notion that homosexual people were inherently diseased.  

It worked to some degree. The movement succeeded in getting police departments to retrain their officers, educating them that HIV/AIDS was unlikely to be transmitted through casual contact and mere exposure to bodily fluids. But street-level police officers continued to be misinformed and afraid. A dozen officers interviewed by a Chicago Tribune reporter in 1988 all said they were more afraid of catching AIDS than of being shot. As police stopped using the highly visible—and highly parodied–yellow gloves, latex medical gloves became a commonplace addition to an officer’s toolbelt.

To be sure, the COVID-19 pandemic gives all of us a new, and better, reason to avoid the air and saliva of others. But police departments started using spit hoods long before the current pandemic—and their use was increasing.  The San Diego Sheriff’s Department used spit hoods almost 400 times in 2016, an increase of 80 percent      from 2014-15. Simple masks worn by police would have sufficed: police supply stores also sell spit masks and spit-shields that officers can wear. Yet in the Garcia case, police officers weren’t even wearing masks.

Why have police opted to put spit hoods on suspects—who are known to object and struggle against them—to protect themselves against dangers that, if they even exist, are exaggerated?

One obvious answer, as I suggested earlier, is that exaggerating danger creates a rationale for unlimited violence. Police departments claim that spit hoods are a matter of health and safety, but this obscures the threats these devices pose to those forced into them, the deaths that have occurred because of them, and international concerns about spit hoods as a human rights abuse.

But how the spit hood is marketed may also explain why police use them as much as they do. One police supply company trumpets the benefits of the “spit sock” beyond protection from infectious disease, promoting it as a device that “helps keep patrol cars clean” and “helps curb aggressive behavior.”

Spit hoods help police officers subdue suspects. This desire for complete control through inducing fear calls to mind nineteenth-century slave-owners who used locked masks to punish enslaved Africans, devices which made breathing uncomfortable, and also controlled their ability to speak and eat. Today’s spit hoods are used on their descendants, even children, to make them more tractable during an arrest.

The truth is, spit hoods are one more method in a long history of equipment that have been used to control and intimidate specific classes of distrusted and devalued people. They are used, not because police are truly in danger, but because someone talked back, spat at a police officer, or because, as Black Americans, they were presumed to be defiant and threatening. 

Momentum is building to eliminate this dangerous and unnecessary tactic. In December 2020, UNICEF UK recommended that police officers in England stop using spit hoods on children. Australia eliminated them in 2019. The New York Police Department has decided against issuing spit hoods to their officers, and the rest of the country should do the same.  

Stop the deaths and the heartbreak. Ban spit hoods now.

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Leslie J. Reagan is Professor of History and Law at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, prize-winning author of  When Abortion Was a Crime, and a leader of her local ACLU.  She is a Public Voices Fellow with the Op-Ed Project.

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