Marcia Greenwood and Steve Orr, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, and The Associated Press
ROCHESTER, N.Y. — “Spit hoods,” such as the one placed over the head of Daniel Prude, have a controversial history and are receiving renewed scrutiny after Prude, a Black man, died of asphyxiation earlier this year as police in Rochester, New York, restrained him.
Officers use the hoods, typically made of mesh, to prevent themselves from coming into contact with the bodily fluids of a detainee who is spitting or biting. While many in law enforcement defend spit hoods as vital to protect officers, critics have denounced them as dangerous and inhumane.
The coronavirus pandemic arrived in Rochester shortly before police responded to the call about Prude on March 23.
During that call, the 41-year-old Chicago man was handcuffed and on the ground, agitated, squirming and shouting belligerently at times. But when he started spitting into the street, an officer covered his head with a spit hood.
Prude, who was naked, told the officers he was infected with the coronavirus, which likely raised concerns about his spitting. However, before the hood was put on him, police body-cam video does not show an officer scolding Prude for spitting, nor does it show him spitting on or directly toward an officer.
Instead, Prude spits in front of himself as he’s laying on his stomach. And once or twice, with his head turned, he spits farther away between two officers, seemingly to avoid hitting them.
Prude’s death has since drawn protests and police have faced criticism after details of the interaction were released earlier this week. Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren ordered the immediate suspension of seven police officers involved and rebuked Police Chief La’Ron Singletary for his handling of the case, including a failure to inform her of the full details of the March incident until early August.
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According to The New York Times, spit hoods have been involved in a number of deaths in police custody during the past 10 years and cited in several lawsuits.
In 2015, Davidson County, Tennessee, agreed to pay a $150,000 settlement in the case of a man who, while being held on a public intoxication charge, died after a correctional officer put one of the hoods on him, according to the Tennessean.
In the case of Prude, officers applied force for several minutes to his head and back as he lay on the pavement. He lost consciousness after officers cut off his breathing. Prude was taken by ambulance to a nearby hospital, where he was pronounced dead on March 30 after being removed from life support.
In her autopsy report on Prude, Monroe County Medical Examiner Dr. Nadia Granger made no mention of the spit hood. She ruled Prude’s death a homicide caused by “complications of asphyxia in the setting of physical restraint.”
An officer put the hood over Prude’s head three minutes after police first detained him. He spit a few more times after that, including while facing an officer, and at that point was admonished to stop. In the 1½ minutes he is covered by the hood before he falls silent, Prude can be heard on police body-worn video asking them at least three times to remove it.
“Take this thing off my face! I mean it. You’re trying to kill me,” he yells just seconds after officers knock him over and begin the forcible restraint that led to his death.
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On Thursday, in response to the Prude case, Amnesty International USA issued a statement condemning the use of the hoods.
“Spit hoods can cause extreme distress and restricted breathing. They are especially dangerous when someone is already in crisis as Daniel Prude appeared to be,” said Justin Mazzola, the organization’s deputy director of research. “This is just one of a number of cases of people being suffocated by police and illustrates the need for systemic police reform.”
Some communities have discussed banning spit hoods, including Berkeley, California, in 2019. While Berkeley did not institute the ban, Boona Cheema, chair of the mental health commission for the cities of Berkeley and Albany, said at the time that the hoods “can create alarming fear, distress, panic and humiliation,” according to the Oakland Reporter.
“There is also a risk of death, particularly as there is limited visual ability to observe individuals’ face and head while in crisis,” Cheema added.
They look like ‘something out of Abu Ghraib’
For some, spit hoods evoke images of the hoods used on prisoners at U.S. government overseas detention sites or “black sites.”
They look like “something out of Abu Ghraib,” the notorious Iraq prison that during the Iraq War was the scene of a U.S. military scandal involving the mistreatment of detainees, said Adanté Pointer, an Oakland, California, civil rights lawyer who has handled several cases involving spit hoods. “They’re often used in a punitive way,” he said.
The hoods vary in design, but Park City, Utah, Police Chief Wade Carpenter said the ones he’s seen are made to be breathable and held in place with an elastic around the neck that can easily be broken.
“It wouldn’t put any pressure on the carotid arteries in the neck. It wouldn’t restrict blood flow to the brain and certainly wouldn’t block the mouth or nose,” said Carpenter, adding that officers in the ski town have used the devices for years without issues.
University of South Carolina criminal justice professor Geoffrey Alpert said the hoods have reduced the risk of officers and bystanders getting spit on for decades.
“Take away COVID, it’s just a nasty thing anyway,” Alpert said.
Just three weeks after Prude’s deadly encounter with police, a similar incident happened in Tucson, Arizona. Police handcuffed and placed a spit hood on the head of a naked man also in distress. Carlos Ingram Lopez died after gasping for air and pleading for water.
In another case, a 45-year-old man died in 2015 after police in Bernalillo, New Mexico, placed him in a spit hood, possibly incorrectly.
A responding sergeant from a neighboring community told investigators a thick cotton part of the hood was covering Ben C de Baca’s face, nose and mouth and that he hadn’t seen the device “used in that fashion before.”
A medical investigator’s report concluded that improperly placed spit hoods have the potential to cause suffocation and that in this case, the possibility of asphyxia from use of the hood could not be ruled out. Bernalillo settled a wrongful death lawsuit brought by the man’s family for an undisclosed sum.
Prison guards have also used spit hoods, sometimes to deadly effect. Their use varies by jurisdiction — police in Minneapolis deploy them, but those in New York City don’t. The NYPD, the nation’s largest police force, said a team of police EMTs has only recently started testing their effectiveness in the wake of the pandemic.