Anyone who has spent any time in policing and during that time actually done any policing will have experienced being spat at or on, often involving large amounts of phlegm and often blood.
It’s true that other people – including teachers and the public – get spat at. However, the reason it is of greater concern for police officers, is that the people we often deal with are at substantially higher risk of carrying infectious disease and given the confrontation and violence that is sometimes inherent to those dealings, it is well-known in policing that there are individuals with hepatitis C, HIV or TB who will seek to use their disease as a weapon against officers.
I welcomed the Met’s announcement of a trial of spit guards – though was disappointed to see it limited to custody. In my experience the majority of spitters start spitting before arriving in custody – and some have often calmed down by the time of arrival in custody. It’s part of why The Centre for Public Safety is calling for personal issue spit guards.
To see the U-turn that followed just hours later – in which the trial was withdrawn, or at least postponed – speaks to a lack of communication between the force and the Mayor’s Office, but it also speaks to a lack of communication with the people of London.
There will always be those who will always oppose giving police officers the tools they need to do the job. These are not the people the police service should tailor their communication strategies to. It is the public at large – who do generally support the police – that need to be reached. They may not particularly care at the time, but if the police service doesn’t recognise them and speak to them, then all they will hear shall be the shrill cries from those who always oppose any tool for police officers or public safety.
The Centre for Public Safety conducted some analysis in relation to spit guards to identify the scale of threat posed by two of the major infectious diseases: hepatitis C and tuberculosis. We found that laboratory reports of hepatitis C have almost doubled in three years in London (up 91%) – that’s almost 4,000 reports each year.
What’s more, some 59% of London’s injecting drug users (classically, crack and heroin) have hepatitis C. The picture across the UK is broadly similar with approximately half of all injecting drug users having hepatitis C.
At the same time, approximately 6,000 new cases of tuberculosis are diagnosed each year, with some 39% in London alone. The average rate for TB across England is approximately 12 per 100,000 – but the rate is more than 8 times higher in parts of London (100 per 100,000 in Newham) and more than 4 times higher in parts of the South East (51.5 per 100,000 in Slough).
Through our analysis we have identified a number of forces at heightened risks from infectious diseases – specifically the Met Police, West Midlands Police, Thames Valley Police, Greater Manchester, Lancashire, Leicestershire and Bedfordshire. Sadly, only Bedfordshire presently make use of a spit guard.
We also know from public health research that the most at-risk populations are the very same populations who police will often have cause to deal with. Specifically, those with a history of imprisonment, drug use, alcohol abuse or homelessness.
Any officer with any experience of frontline policing – particularly community policing – will be able to picture specific individuals who exhibit all these risk factors but who would never dream of spitting at an officer. Sadly, they will also picture those who may even go so far as biting their own lip to make sure they could spit blood.
Some other people are clearly living in a different world when they talk about policing and public safety – take Martha Spurrier, Liberty’s Director, who claims in The Independent that the use of a spit mask is “primitive and cruel”. It simply doesn’t occur to her that the act of spitting blood – or even just threatening to spit – at police officers is truly “primitive and cruel”.
It’s why The Centre for Public Safety also recommends new legislation making blood tests mandatory for those who spit at an officer. Such a measure would assist with the diagnosis, clinical management and treatment of the officer. It’s a simple measure that would also send a strong signal to frontline public safety professionals that we recognise the risks you face and will do all we can to minimise those risks.
Even those bodies within policing who one might hope to have a position on the matter have remained silent during the recent furore. If you search “spit guards” or “spit hoods” on the College of Policing you will come up empty. Instead, the College’s response to the recent discussion of protecting police officers from infectious disease is limited to a screen-shotted press release issued on Twitter this morning.
The College state that it is a matter for Chief Constables. Of course, some have already made efforts to introduce them and they should be applauded. However, when there are media reports of some Chiefs being reluctant to approve their use because they are “reminiscent of Guantanamo Bay” one has to wonder whether such Chief officers are any more in touch with reality than the Director of Liberty.
There are lots of things in policing that could be considered “reminiscent of Guantanamo Bay” – the use of handcuffs, the use of cells, the deprivation of liberty, the wearing of uniforms by guards, and presumably a rather limited choice of meal for detainees. However, British policing – as anyone with any actual experience of it will tell you – is as far removed from Guantanamo Bay as North Korea is from free and fair elections.
It’s why The Centre for Public Safety makes explicit the need for Chief officers to recognise their moral and legal duty under Health and Safety law to look after officers. It is hard to see how a Chief who believes the spit hood is like something out of a Guantanamo Bay can execute the duty with which they are charged.
More broadly, it’s important to address the issue of “public perception”. Opposition to fit-for-purpose and well-designed spit guards is based on either ignorance at best or malice at worst. That’s why The Centre also calls – in the case of London – for the Met to produce multimedia content that communicates to the public what a spit guard is, how it works and why it is needed. It’s not difficult. It’s also why The Centre calls for the tactic to be explained to interested members of the public through existing Ward Panels and to even provide the opportunity for members of the public to try one on. With a concerted campaign, spit guards become a no-brainer to all but those who will oppose anything that supports safe and effective policing.
The work of Devon and Cornwall around Taser provides an example of what a force can do if it genuinely wants to move forward on an issue with the support of the public. The Citizen Police Academies operated by Warwickshire and Avon and Somerset also provide a forum for communicating their use – and it’s why we are running a Citizen Police Academy Project.
In closing, it’s 2016, the threat level is severe and we have police officers routinely being stabbed and murdered just a few hundred miles away in France. Meanwhile in England the service struggles to roll-out or justify something to help prevent the spread of infectious diseases. It is a preventative measure – in the finest traditions of policing. It is a no-brainer to the informed person – in the same way as washing your hands and wearing medical gloves are.
It’s just one reason why The Centre for Public Safety is necessary – to help make cases that others are unwilling or unable to. Our mission is to support frontline professionals and to advocate for world-class policing and public safety in all our communities. It’s our view that those few forces who currently provide access for officers to spit guards are that bit closer to being world-class than the rest.
The Centre for Public Safety published ‘Spit Guards: The case for protecting police officers against infectious diseases’ in response to the recent controversy surrounding “spit hoods” and the decision by the Metropolitan Police and Mayor of London to row back on the deployment of spit guards in custody suites. This article was originally published on Policing Insight.