Public awareness of the potential dangers associated with so-called “spit hoods” is increasing in light of the recent death of Daniel Prude in Rochester, New York.
A recent article by the Washington Post features an interview with attorney Ed Budge, who discusses the use of spit hoods by police and the firm’s experience handling cases involving serious injury or death from the the use of these devices (also sometimes called “spit socks”).
From the Washington Post, September 5, 2020:
Spit hoods like the one Budge described are under fresh scrutiny after body camera footage released Wednesday showed police in Rochester, N.Y., place a hood over 41-year-old Daniel Prude during a March arrest. Across the United States, the hoods have been cited for wrongful death or serious injury during arrests or in detention settings.
Prude was handcuffed, hooded and forced to the ground before an officer put his knee to his back for at least two minutes. Video shows Prude — whose family said was in the midst of a mental health crisis — eventually fall silent and go limp. He was taken to a hospital and was removed from life support a week later.
“The hoods boil my blood more than any other type of police force used because of the inevitability of harm against someone who is mentally ill, vomiting or on drugs. [Hoods] induce panic: It’s like something out of Abu Ghraib,” said Budge, whose practice focuses on custodial deaths and excessive police force.
He has litigated and settled multiple cases in which spit hoods were a factor in someone’s injury or death, including a case that led to a 2015 settlement that was reported at the time to be among the largest ever for a Seattle police use-of-force complaint.
‘Human error and mechanical error’
Spit hoods, sometimes called spit socks or spit masks, are most often used in prison environments and on suspects in police custody, said Geoffrey Alpert, a criminal justice professor at the University of South Carolina. He said hoods have been used for decades — including “in prisons and torture chambers” — but grew more common in legitimate use during the 1980s at the height of the AIDS epidemic.
Alpert likened the negative outcomes with the use of hoods in recent decades to the way car crashes are often described as “accidents”: “They’re not really ‘accidents’ — there’s human error and mechanical error. With spit masks, it’s the same.”
There is no apparent national or industry standard for the manufacture of hoods; Alpert said that he is unaware of any national best practices training for police on how to use them and that any policies that exist would be specific to individual departments.
He said many police agencies keep hoods on hand — “maybe thrown in the trunk” — but doesn’t believe they’re widely used. “You never hear about them unless they don’t work,” he said.
It is unclear which company’s hood Rochester police used on Prude; the department did not immediately respond to questions about the make of spit hood the department uses, whether officers are required to be trained on how to use them and what, if any, written protocols exist regarding their use.
Alpert said different hoods are designed for different settings, with thicker and less permeable ones being more common in corrections settings, when someone is seated upright and restrained or being transported to court. More transparent hoods that resemble a mosquito net or a beekeeper’s hood are better used in police restraint situations when a suspect may be under high stress and positioned in a way that means they can’t breathe as easily.
“Anytime someone is placed under a hood, they have to be monitored regularly, and even more so in a police restraint situation, when officers are applying any kind of pressure to someone,” he said.
“The whole compression asphyxia thing is huge. Once you’re controlled, you have to be rolled over,” he said, adding, “And if you have a mask, I can’t see your condition change, if your lips are turning blue, if you’re throwing up and breathing.”
Alpert stressed that being spit on is an understandably aggravating experience.
“I’ve talked to a lot of cops who have been spit on, and they tell me it’s just the most disgusting thing,” he said. Ultimately, though, he said, police must be “the adult in the room” and monitor the safety of someone who may have just attacked them. “The response [by police] can’t be disgusting — the response has to be restraint.”
‘Appropriate tactical device,’ but unregulated and prone to misuse
Antonio Romanucci, one of the lawyers representing Prude’s estate — he is also co-counsel in the George Floyd case — said that spit masks can be used in a manner that is consistent with good police practice.
“When police officers are properly trained on them,” Romanucci said, hoods are an “appropriate tactical device. When they’re not trained, and are cold and careless, that’s a contradiction to policy, I’d suppose.”
In the video, Prude is seen responding to officers and saying “yes, sir” as he laid on the ground, naked, and put his hands behind his back to be handcuffed. Several minutes into the video, an officer quickly places a spit hood over Prude’s head. After several minutes, while sitting up, Prude yells “Take this off me!” and spits several times from under the hood. When he tries to rise, the officers restrain him, putting him face down. One officer places his knee on Prude’s back while another presses his head to the pavement.
Moments later, an officer notices that Prude, still wearing the hood, has vomited. The Monroe County Office of the Medical Examiner ruled Prude’s death a homicide caused by “complications of asphyxia in the setting of physical restraint.”
“What stands out in this instance is that extra monitoring should be provided,” Romanucci told The Post. “The man wasn’t breathing. He stopped talking. He was predicting his own death, and no one bothers to check on him. And that’s not good policing.”
Prude’s family is preparing to file a civil suit against the Rochester police pending the outcome of an independent investigation.
Budge, the Seattle-based attorney, said the Prude situation underscores the need for a national standard for the manufacturing and recommended use of spit hoods in police and prison settings. Regulations would not only save lives but would also provide a measure of protection for police, he said.
“I have sympathy for the work the police do, and I think very often the problem when you see a tragedy like Mr. Prude, lies at the top of the department,” Budge added. “It’s so difficult seeing these officers being put in these situation without proper training or with tools that can result in such terrible outcomes.”