Two months before George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police, another Black man, Daniel Prude, died of suffocation when police in upstate New York covered his head with a restraining device called a spit hood.
Police use of spit hoods, mesh fabric that covers detainees’ heads to prevent spitting and biting, is plagued by controversy. A recent article in The Wall Street Journal found spit hoods have figured in at least 10 wrongful-death lawsuits since 2010.
New York City patrol officers don’t carry them. Nor do Chicago police. In July 2019, Berkeley was poised to join the ranks of cities that object to them.
What stopped us? A City Council resolution by Mayor Jesse Arreguin.
As with previous votes to support military-style police training and to ban overnight RV parking, Arreguin paid lip service to much-needed reforms, then opted to keep things the way they are.
“Cruel and dangerous”
Berkeley’s 2019 evaluation of restraint devices foreshadowed the scrutiny that spit hoods face in the national media today.
The evaluation took root around 2013 when a police watchdog, Tracie DeAngelis, documented Berkeley police pinning down a detainee whose head was wrapped in a spit hood outside of Berkeley’s Central Library. The advocacy group Berkeley Copwatch took footage from DeAngelis and other examples of police use of spit hoods to Berkeley’s Mental Health Commission, contributing to a review of police practice.
Led by Boona Cheema, a celebrated advocate for homeless people and people with mental illness, the Mental Health Commission reported that spit hoods tend to escalate police interactions, creating fear, distress, panic and humiliation while introducing risk of injury or death.
Noting that Amnesty International has called spit hoods “a cruel and dangerous form of restraint,” the commission also highlighted the potential for civil rights and human rights violations due to a disproportionate impact on marginalized communities.
The commission pointed to alternatives, such as N95 masks and eye guards, that could also protect first responders while contributing to a more humanitarian approach.
Limited oversight, accountability
Instead of demanding data on the use of spit hoods by Berkeley police, Arreguin accepted statements from Police Chief Andrew Greenwood, who favored spit hoods over any alternative, to counter statements from the Mental Health Commission and members of the public.
The spit-hood defense was based on the idea that spit or a bite could expose police to diseases. And when someone transmits even the tiniest droplets of saliva on an officer, Greenwood said, it can lead to lost staff time, police overtime, workers’ compensation claims and legal expenses for the city attorney to prepare and manage documentation.
In other words, facing evidence that spit hoods are actively endangering Berkeley residents and threatening their civil rights, Greenwood used potential risks affecting police officers as justification to do nothing to rein in the potential for police misconduct.
To see how Arreguin settled the matter, go to the City Council archived video of the July 9, 2019 meeting and click ahead to the 3 hour, 35 minute mark.
“This issue has been a difficult one,” Arreguin said. “The safety of our staff is my top priority. … Until an alternative is identified and a new policy adopted by the city council, the use of spit hoods will continue to be permitted per police departmental policy.”
A council majority went along.
A year later, nothing
Today, the entire country is questioning police use of spit hoods. We’ve learned about Prude’s death in police custody with a spit hood on his head. Then we learned about Carlos Ingram Lopez, just 27 years old, who died in Tucson, Ariz., also in police custody with a spit hood on his head.
These tragedies have set off investigations, protests and demands for reform.
Meanwhile, here in Berkeley with Arreguin’s assistance, the police approach to spit hoods remains fundamentally unchanged.