The use of “spit masks” has come under fire last week after a viral video surfaced showing Sacramento Police placing the mesh bag over the head of a 12-year-old boy who allegedly spit on an officer while being detained last month.
Critics say the use of spit masks, also called spit hoods, are unnecessary, but law enforcement experts counter saying they’re an important tool for officer safety.
“For the same reason you would use rubber gloves for protection when dealing with a subject that is unruly with bodily fluids, it’s basically a protective measure for the officers, to protect the officers from exposure to bodily fluids,” said Brett Meade of the National Police Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based research hub for law enforcement policy.
The masks used by Sacramento Police Department are made of a fine, transparent mesh that resembles mosquito netting. And a narrow elastic band at the opening of the hood keeps it from sliding off someone’s head.
It prevents someone from spitting saliva or blood at other people, said Officer Marcus Basquez of the Sacramento Police Department in a demonstration for The Bee. It can also prevent someone from biting an officer, he said.
“It’s very loose, it fits over an individual’s head,” he said “It’s not tight at all.”
Meade said spit masks are widely used by law enforcement agencies across the country and are considered a best practice. Firefighters, paramedics, nurses and emergency responders also use them, he said.
Capt. Keith Wade of the Sacramento Fire Department said firefighters and paramedics have used the spit masks for years.
“The spit sock is one of the most passive restraint devices out there for officers to use when an individual is spitting at officers,” said Ed Obayashi, a use-of-force expert and Plumas County deputy sheriff. “They can breathe easily, move easily in a spit sock. I’ve never heard of anyone being investigated or disciplined for a using spit sock. “
Spit masks vary in appearance, and Meade said a “clear” or transparent mask is best so an officer can monitor someone in the event they develop breathing difficulties.
Despite their wide use, they were the subject of debate in Britain for several months before the London Metropolitan Police were allowed to use them earlier this year. In Berkeley, the police department announced they were reviewing their policy on the use of spit hoods amid criticism that they are dehumanizing.
Tanya Faison, Sacramento Black Lives Matter founder, said she didn’t like way spit masks look, saying they resemble “something out of Guantánamo Bay.”
“Using it on a 12-year-old, they shouldn’t be putting bags over people’s heads,” she said.
Though the incident happened April 28 and the video captured by a bystander had been posted for several weeks, the incident gained attention Tuesday after attorney Mark T. Harris released a video on behalf of the boy’s family.
“I’m here to say one thing and one thing only: We will not tolerate our community, and particularly our young people being treated in the way this young man was treated,” Harris said on the video, which carries the logo of the law firm of Ben Crump, a nationally known civil rights attorney.
In response, the Sacramento Police Department released a statement Wednesday saying officers saw the boy running away from a security guard and stopped to help. In the process of detaining the boy, he allegedly spit in the officer’s face “multiple times.” The boy was later released to his mother and cited, police said.
The department also released body camera footage that appears to show the boy spitting in the officer’s face.
Neither video shows what initiated the incident with police. Harris said the boy “was doing nothing more than trying to enjoy the benefits of a neighborhood carnival.” And in the videos, a security guard can be heard saying the boy was trespassing at a nearby Walgreens store and asking people to buy things for him.
In body camera footage, officers help the security guard detain the boy outside a restaurant on El Camino Avenue in Old North Sacramento. After they handcuff him, they lead him toward the patrol car and the boy turns to one officers and appears to spit in her face.
The officer can be heard saying “he just spit on me.”
“Yeah, I spit on you all. How do you like that s---?” the boy says.
He repeats that he spit on the officer several times and after officers put the boy chest-down on the ground, they place a “spit mask” over his head. He continues to talk and breathe rapidly while the mesh bag loosely surrounds his face. At one point the boy says he can’t breathe, and officers turn him over and put him in an upright position.
When he demands that the spit mask be taken off, an officer can he heard saying, “I cannot. You’re spitting at me, bud.”
“Just because it’s a juvenile makes absolutely no difference in the consideration of deploying a spit sock in these circumstances,” Obayashi said. “These cops did everything correctly.”
The boy was later released to his mother and cited for batter against a police officer and resisting officers, the department said.