Shortly before Daniel Prude lost consciousness while the Rochester police held him down, one of the officers had pulled a white hood from his pocket and slipped it over Mr. Prude’s head.
The mesh hood is a common device that the police and correction officers use, known as a “spit hood” or “spit sock.” It was intended to keep Mr. Prude, who had been spitting on the ground, from exposing them to disease.
Earlier that night, Mr. Prude, who had a history of mental illness, had run out of his brother’s home naked and was behaving erratically, telling at least one person that he had the coronavirus, according to police reports.
The officers went on to hold Mr. Prude down on the pavement for two minutes, his head still wrapped in the sack, as he lost consciousness and his pulse stopped. Paramedics restarted his heart, but he died a week later in a hospital. An autopsy found the cause of death was “complications of asphyxia in the setting of physical restraint.”
Mr. Prude’s death, along with the jarring body camera footage of him being subdued, has brought new scrutiny to the longstanding use of spit hoods and similar devices by law enforcement.
What is a spit hood?
A spit hood, or spit guard, is a loose, breathable fabric sack that can be placed over a person’s head to prevent them from biting or spitting.
There are many designs, but the hoods usually are made of a porous, breathable fabric, often a mesh that allows officers to see the suspect’s face. Many hoods have an elastic band designed to stay loosely secured around a person’s neck.
The devices are intended to keep an emotionally disturbed person from biting or spitting on an officer, not just to prevent the spread of diseases but also to avoid other injuries.
“People quite frankly underestimate the level of danger that officers can face from individuals that are using their mouths and their teeth,” said Maria Haberfield, a professor of policing science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, in New York City.
The coronavirus pandemic — and the risk that officers could be infected by a suspect’s saliva — have drawn attention to the use of spit hoods, though it is difficult to track whether use of the devices has increased in the last six months.
Who uses them and why?
The use of spit hoods or spit shields is widespread among medics, prison guards and the police, throughout the United States and internationally.
Authorities in many European countries use the device to shield themselves from infectious diseases, and many American police departments also employ them as a restraining device.
Scotland Yard announced last year that it would supply all officers with spit hoods; the Garda, Ireland’s national police force, began deploying the device more widely early this year. Most police departments in the United States have them on hand.
Policies on spit masks vary among major police departments; some will not allow the devices to be used on children, or on a person who has been pepper-sprayed.
Chris Petzer, the owner of Handcuff Warehouse, a Virginia-based law enforcement equipment company that supplies spit hoods, said the emergence of the coronavirus has only heightened the growing demand for the devices.
Spit hoods are more often used by corrections officers, in prisons and jails, Mr. Petzer said, and many police departments do not issue them to patrol officers.
The New York Police Department is one of the departments that does not give spit guards to patrol officers, a spokesman, Al Baker, said.
Because of the coronavirus epidemic, however, the department has begun issuing them to emergency services officers, who are also trained as medics, on a trial basis, Mr. Baker said.
The Coronavirus Outbreak ›
Frequently Asked Questions
Updated September 1, 2020
Why is it safer to spend time together outside?
- Outdoor gatherings lower risk because wind disperses viral droplets, and sunlight can kill some of the virus. Open spaces prevent the virus from building up in concentrated amounts and being inhaled, which can happen when infected people exhale in a confined space for long stretches of time, said Dr. Julian W. Tang, a virologist at the University of Leicester.
What are the symptoms of coronavirus?
- In the beginning, the coronavirus seemed like it was primarily a respiratory illness — many patients had fever and chills, were weak and tired, and coughed a lot, though some people don’t show many symptoms at all. Those who seemed sickest had pneumonia or acute respiratory distress syndrome and received supplemental oxygen. By now, doctors have identified many more symptoms and syndromes. In April, the C.D.C. added to the list of early signs sore throat, fever, chills and muscle aches. Gastrointestinal upset, such as diarrhea and nausea, has also been observed. Another telltale sign of infection may be a sudden, profound diminution of one’s sense of smell and taste. Teenagers and young adults in some cases have developed painful red and purple lesions on their fingers and toes — nicknamed “Covid toe” — but few other serious symptoms.
Why does standing six feet away from others help?
- The coronavirus spreads primarily through droplets from your mouth and nose, especially when you cough or sneeze. The C.D.C., one of the organizations using that measure, bases its recommendation of six feet on the idea that most large droplets that people expel when they cough or sneeze will fall to the ground within six feet. But six feet has never been a magic number that guarantees complete protection. Sneezes, for instance, can launch droplets a lot farther than six feet, according to a recent study. It’s a rule of thumb: You should be safest standing six feet apart outside, especially when it’s windy. But keep a mask on at all times, even when you think you’re far enough apart.
I have antibodies. Am I now immune?
- As of right now, that seems likely, for at least several months. There have been frightening accounts of people suffering what seems to be a second bout of Covid-19. But experts say these patients may have a drawn-out course of infection, with the virus taking a slow toll weeks to months after initial exposure. People infected with the coronavirus typically produce immune molecules called antibodies, which are protective proteins made in response to an infection. These antibodies may last in the body only two to three months, which may seem worrisome, but that’s perfectly normal after an acute infection subsides, said Dr. Michael Mina, an immunologist at Harvard University. It may be possible to get the coronavirus again, but it’s highly unlikely that it would be possible in a short window of time from initial infection or make people sicker the second time.
What are my rights if I am worried about going back to work?
Are spit hoods dangerous?
A medical study published in 2019 found the use of a spit hood produced “no clinically significant changes” in a person’s ability to breathe, provided he or she was healthy.
“Most of the time, they are safe unless a person has an underlying condition,” Ms. Haberfield said.
But a spit hood is often used in combination with other restraints, as it was in Mr. Prude’s case. After putting the hood on his head, three officers held Mr. Prude down, one pressing his head to the pavement, one placing a knee on his back and a third holding down his legs.
Neil Gehlawat, a California lawyer who has sued on behalf of several people who died after being restrained in a spit hood, said the devices can lead to physiological stress, like trouble breathing or an increased heart rate.
“You’ll have the person who is being restrained, usually in a prone position so they’re facedown, there’s already pressure on the diaphragm,” he said. “And then a spit mask is being put on top of that person, that further restricts their ability to breathe.”
He added: “They’re really restricting airflow, and they can often lead to people asphyxiating and dying.”
Have the devices played a role in other deaths?
Spit hoods have been involved in at least 10 deaths in police custody since 2001, though it is difficult to determine how much the spit hood contributed to those deaths.
In April, Carlos Ingram Lopez, a 27-year-old cooking school graduate, died in Tucson, Ariz., after police held him down and covered his face with a blanket and a hood. Like Mr. Prude, Mr. Lopez was in the middle of a mental health breakdown.
Jacob Bauer died in Pleasanton, Calif., in August 2018 after police restrained him with batons and tasers and applied a spit mask to his face. Prosecutors later cleared the officers involved in Mr. Bauer’s death of criminal wrongdoing.
Even in cases where someone has not died, the use of spit hoods has stirred controversy and prompted lawsuits.
Police officers in Sacramento, for instance, placed a hood on the head of a 12-year-old boy, who officers said was spitting at them, in April 2019. A video of the incident went viral online, and the boy’s family sued the Sacramento police department for $100,000, claiming the boy had been traumatized.
Susan Beachy contributed research.