Avon and Somerset police says the restraints will be used only when a person threatens to spit, has attempted to spit or has already spat. Photograph: Tim Ireland/PA
A police force has been accused of fear mongering and stigmatising sufferers of hepatitis C and HIV by playing up the risks of transmission of blood-borne viruses as a reason to introduce spit guards.
Avon and Somerset police announced their plan to issue spit guards to all operational officers from January next year. “Each day we face being spat at, putting us at risk of HIV, hepatitis and tuberculosis and the degrading assault can have a lasting psychological impact,” said Assistant Chief Constable Stephen Cullen.
Spit guards are tight mesh hoods that officers can pull over the heads of suspects resisting detention to stop them from spitting or biting. They are used by 25 forces but have been criticised by human rights groups.
Avon and Somerset’s announcement came with an account by an officer, named John, who said people infected with blood-borne viruses use spitting as a “weapon”. He described an incident in which he arrested a drunk woman who had hepatitis C after she attacked a paramedic.
“She was continually spitting, spit that was bloody. It was disgusting; she was trying to infect us,” he said, recounting how officers donned riot gear to protect themselves as they stripped the detainee for her safety. “After the shift we all went home to our kids wondering what we were taking home.”
Rachel Halford, the deputy chief executive of the Hepatitis C Trust, said she agreed that police should be protected from health risks, but rejected the force’s implication that the virus could be transmitted through spitting. “Hepatitis C is a blood-borne virus and is therefore only transmitted through blood-to-blood contact. The virus cannot be transmitted via spit,” she said.
“Stigma and misinformation about hepatitis C and other blood-borne viruses is a key challenge faced by patients, who are already disproportionately from the most marginalised and disadvantaged groups in society. Many patients report feeling ‘dirty’ and experiencing social exclusion due to misinformation about transmission risks.”