Figures obtained by RNZ have revealed that New Zealand police used hoods to spit on 117 children and young people between 2016 and 2020.
The hoods were worn by police 129 times in total, with seven youths placed on them more than once.
Nearly 70 uses were on tamariki and rangatahi Māori, including a boy as young as nine in 2018.
Comprised of two sections, the Spit Hoods are a one-size-fits-all device designed to prevent people from biting and spitting on officers.
Children’s Commissioner Judge Andrew Becroft described them as a “Guantanamo Bay-type invention” and said their use would be highly traumatic.
“Just imagine a nine-year-old … imagine that kind of technique and that kind of device strapped to the head of your nine-year-old.”
Becroft wanted them to be eliminated immediately for tamariki.
“Frankly, it is deeply disturbing, absolutely unacceptable in my opinion,” he said.
“It is morally wrong and the use of spithoods in young children should be abolished and abolished immediately.”
Advocate for justice Julia Whaipooti thought the numbers were devastating, but was not surprised by the overrepresentation of Maori.
“In fact, this again highlights that there is structural racism in the way police police, where they police, and who they control,” Whaipooti said.
“We know that with guns, tasers, dogs … with the use of pepper spray, the police are more likely to use it in Maori and the Pacific than in non-Maori.”
University of Waikato senior psychology professor Armon Tamatea said children who come into contact with the police often have a difficult education.
“They are more likely to have experienced neglect, abuse, being in foster care, for example,” Tamatea said.
“Maybe she even has learning or language difficulties, mental health issues, and maybe other vulnerabilities as well, for which it is likely.”
Placing a child in a spit would likely cause a degree of trauma, he said.
“Either a psychological trauma from the terrifying experience of having a hood applied to your face, and a physical trauma, possibly with the potential for suffocation.
“The few studies that seem to be available on the use of this are generally done with healthy adults, I have [seen] probably nothing will be done with children because there will be ethical problems in doing this type of research with young people. So those would be the foreseeable problems, in the absence of hard evidence on that. “
The Independent Police Conduct Authority had received no complaints or police references about the youth behind these figures.
Investigations manager Stu Graham said that in cases of young children it would be desirable for police to refer them for review.
“So we have a memorandum of understanding with the police where we expect certain things to be referred to us. This referral is at the discretion of the commissioner. The situation you have described, the use on a nine or ten year old, it would be desirable that be referred for review. That would depend on the circumstances and is ultimately a matter for the police. “
Police Association President Chris Cahill said officers dealt with thousands of young offenders each year, meaning the number of people ending up in hoods was low.
It wasn’t just a matter of spitting saliva at the officers; some people also spat blood, and the risk was even higher with Covid-19, he said.
“Spitting on a police officer in 2021 could literally be a death sentence with Covid-19 and that is the reality that the police have to deal with.”
The officers who were spat on would worry about the illnesses they may have contracted and the risk it posed to their families.
They may need to be tested for a variety of diseases, such as hepatitis, and some could take months to get a result.
Police Director of Prevention and Community Partnerships, Eric Tibbott, said spitting hoods were the last resort and was comfortable with the way the police used them.
Officers would always complete a tactical options report explaining the rationale behind any decision to use a hood for spitting, he said.
There would also be supervision from a supervisor, and a third party could check whether the hood has been applied in accordance with legislation and policy.
Tibbott said she could understand the children’s commissioner point of view, but was having trouble seeing another option.
“So if you have concerns about spitting and biting, and the possibility of transmission of diseases that are transmitted by saliva and bites, what alternative measures do we have in place? I’m not sure if it exists.”
Spitting bells and Covid-19
It was not known how effective hoods are in preventing the spread of Covid-19, as the police had not tested it.
Tibbott said that was because the hoods were not considered PPE, rather, an option to prevent someone from spitting.
However, spit bells had some potential health benefits in terms of stopping disease transmission through saliva.
Covid-19 would require specialized personal protective equipment, and if there was any indication of a Covid-19 risk, the appropriate face covering would be an N95 mask, Tibbott said.
These were available in all custody units for both staff and offenders.