Coronavirus: Police want spit guards to protect officers from 'vile behaviour'

Mark White, home affairs correspondent
The hoods are used to stop offenders spitting at police

MPs have been told that all police officers should be issued with spit guards to prevent some offenders biting, coughing and spitting at officers after claiming they have COVID-19.

The president of the Police Superintendents' Association told members of the home affairs select committee that a minority of offenders had resorted to behaviour which was putting officers at risk of contracting the virus.

Chief Superintendent Paul Griffiths said the vast majority of people were supportive of the lockdown legislation and of the police, but for a minority, there are "extreme and vile behaviours going on".

He added: "Strong sentences are being issued.

"We're very supportive of that and continuing to send out that message that this really is unacceptable behaviour."

The call for spit guards comes as more than 300 former Metropolitan Police officers have agreed to return to service to help during the coronavirus outbreak.

Commissioner Cressida Dick had appealed to officers who had retired from the Met within the last five years to return.

Sergeant Simon Kempton, speaking for the Police Federation, the body that represents rank and file officers across England and Wales, has said it is time to issue all officers with spit guards, or spit hoods as they are also known.

Sgt Kempton told the committee that every single force had access to spit guards, but often they are only used in police custody suites.

"We need those on the street as well," he said, "because I've got just as much chance of being spat at on the street as I have in custody."

The use of spit hoods is controversial.

They have been used in several incidents in the UK and US where people have subsequently died in police custody.

Human rights charity Liberty called the mesh hoods "dangerous and degrading" and said they had no place on Britain's streets.

But Sgt Kempton said: "It's an emotive issue for me, because I've had other people's blood in my mouth after they've spat at me.

"Now more than ever, while COVID-19 is being weaponised, we need those spit guards in the pockets of every single police officer, not just in custody, but on the street as well."

The sergeant said those dealing with someone with a knife, or trying to punch them, knows that once that situation is dealt with, the threat is over.

But the same was not true with a coronavirus threat, where there is real concern an officer could be taking that back home with them.

"The crime of spitting or biting someone is terrible at the best of times. But during this crisis, when COVID-19 is being weaponised against my colleagues, it heightens that fear."

The home affairs select committee also heard an admission from chief constables that there were "inconsistencies" in the police approach to maintaining the lockdown, in the first few days after the prime minister ordered people to stay at home.

The MPs were told by the chief constables of Derbyshire, Bedfordshire, West Yorkshire and North Yorkshire that the vast majority of people now understood the spirit behind the new powers and have adopted social distancing.

Bedfordshire's chief constable, Garry Forsyth, said the very rapid introduction of the new legislation had resulted in some initial areas of confusion.

He told the committee: "It has been a challenge and I think that's why we've seen some of the challenges around the difference of interpretation early on.. I think we're passed that now."

Mr Forsyth said that the Bedfordshire force had a policy of not allowing officers to issue fines, until they had been fully trained in the use of the new powers.

So far, throughout the entire Bedfordshire force, officers have only issued one fixed penalty fine for non-compliance with social distancing laws.

All four chief constables told the committee that they were working on the principle of trying to engage and persuade those in breach of the law to disperse and head home.

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All four forces have issued very few fines in the last two weeks according to their chief officers.

Derbyshire chief constable Peter Goodman, whose force was criticised for flying drones above the Peak District and urging walkers to go home, said the strategy appeared to have worked.

He told MPs that very few people were now heading to the national park.

All four chief constables said local authorities in their force areas had decided to close the majority of urban parks to prevent the crowds seen during the first weekend of the lockdown.

Of the parks that are still open, despite the good weather this past weekend, the senior officers said visitors had been fewer in number and the vast majority were abiding by the new social distancing rules.