Use of spit and bite guards on children should be prohibited – Police Ombudsman

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Spit guards were used 69 times between January 25 and July 25 this year, including on six children (PA) (PA Archive)
Spit guards were used 69 times between January 25 and July 25 this year, including on six children (PA) (PA Archive)

The use of spit and bite guards by police on children and young persons should be prohibited, the Ombudsman has said.

Police Ombudsman Marie Anderson also expressed concern around the behaviour of officers she had witnessed on body-worn video.

It comes following a six-month review of the deployment of spit and bite guards by police officers in Northern Ireland.

They were used 69 times between January 25 and July 25 this year, including on six children.

Spit and bite guards were introduced to the PSNI at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Ombudsman’s investigators considered the circumstances of the deployment and reviewed the body-worn video while Mrs Anderson personally viewed video of every deployment of a spit and bite guard on a child or young person.

A number of the cases in my review have highlighted a general trend in conduct by officers that is not related to the deployment of spit and bite guards, and is indicative of aggressive and, at times, oppressive and overbearing conduct

Marie Anderson

Seven deployments have resulted in referrals from the Chief Constable for further investigation and two deployments led to the Police Ombudsman initiating an “own motion” investigation of the circumstances.

A number of investigations are ongoing.

Mrs Anderson said her her view is the use of spit and bite guards on children and young persons should be prohibited.

“However, my main concern is that a number of the cases in my review have highlighted a general trend in conduct by officers that is not related to the deployment of spit and bite guards, and is indicative of aggressive and, at times, oppressive and overbearing conduct,” she said.

“I acknowledge that the statistical base is limited, however the conduct I have viewed on video is a cause for concern.”

Amnesty International has called for spit hoods to be withdrawn from use by the PSNI.

Patrick Corrigan, Northern Ireland programme director of Amnesty International, said placing a hood over someone’s head is a “significant use of force”.

He said it also “raises key concerns over cruel and degrading treatment, as well as serious potential health risks, exacerbated by Covid-19”.

“This report by the Police Ombudsman has highlighted a series of problematic behaviours by the police in their use of spit hoods, particularly but not only when used against children,” he said.

“The police have failed to provide convincing scientific or medical evidence to support the use of spit hoods. Until and unless they can, these devices should be withdrawn from use in Northern Ireland immediately.”

Responding, Assistant Chief Constable Sam Donaldson said police have accepted the Police Ombudsman report and all of the 14 policy recommendations made within it.

He said they have implemented nine and are in the process of implementing the remaining five.

Mr Donaldson said there have been 186 deployments of spit and bite guards to October 6, 2021, adding that of those assessed by the Ombudsman, the “vast majority of adult deployments were lawful, necessary and proportionate”.

“We have taken into consideration comments made within the review on the use of spit and bite guards on young people under the age of 18. As a result, we are developing new service instructions and revised policy which will be issued to all officers and staff,” he said.

“We note as well the concerns of the Ombudsman around the standards of officer behaviour and we are currently taking proactive steps to address the issues arising.

“These steps will include updated policy, a new e-learning package and new instructions for both line managers and local senior officers to quality assure the deployment of spit and bite guards.

“Importantly, the themes which have been provided in the report will be helpful in improving our training; the specific cases referenced involving children and potential criminality will inform updated policy; and the case studies will be shared with frontline officers.

“Since the introduction of spit and bite guards in March 2020 we have engaged with our key stakeholders and will continue to do so. An equality impact assessment has been completed and will be published in due course.”

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