Spit hoods - Police in NZ breach own policy on controversial restraint

For the past decade, New Zealand police have significantly increased their use of a controversial restraint tool which has been linked to deaths overseas and admitted to breaching their own policies multiple times.

Example of a spit hood.

Spit hoods are made of a mesh-type fabric, which are placed over someone’s head to stop people from spitting on police officers.

They’re banned in some parts of the world, but in New Zealand their use has grown over the past 10 years – from 12 times in 2011 to 257 last year. That's a 20-fold increase.

Data released to TVNZ1's Sunday under the Official Information Act reveals officers have failed to follow their own policy which prohibits the hooding of individuals after they have been pepper sprayed.

In 2018, 10 people were pepper sprayed and then had the spit hood applied.

Last year, this breach of police policy happened 13 times.

The spray causes a person to spit involuntarily as they try to force the spray out of their mouth and nose. It can also clog nasal passages, causing copious amounts of mucus.

Once the spit hood becomes wet with saliva or blood, it can make it impossible to breathe through it.

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The 29-year old was tasered, pepper-sprayed and tied up by police after he randomly attacked an elderly man in 2018 before he died a few hours later in a cell. Source: Sunday

A Sunday investigation has revealed that the use of a spit hood by police on 29-year-old Alo Ngata in 2018, after he’d been pepper-sprayed by police, may have contributed to his death.

The spit hood was also pulled up incorrectly over Ngata’s whole face, against the manufacturer’s instructions and New Zealand Police policy.

Police policy also states that officers should not use spit hoods “on anyone who is vomiting, having difficulty breathing or bleeding profusely from the mouth or nose".

Prominent defence lawyer Marie Dyhrberg QC says police have a duty of care to everyone, irrespective of what crime they’ve been arrested for.

"I understand from report that it has already been assessed by internal police inquiry it [the spit hood] was not applied correctly," Ms Dyhrberg said.

"But what has to happen is, once that spit hood is on, then there has to be constant monitoring to ensure that at all times the person is able to breathe… What I understand, of course, is he wasn't closely monitored at all times and in fact was left in a cell face down, still restrained.

“That is in serious breach of all the rules," she said.

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Marie Dyhrberg QC says police did not follow correct protocols in restraining Alo Ngata who died in custody. Source: Breakfast

Breakfast host John Campbell put to Ms Dyhrberg today: "Why is it important? Why are you speaking up for correct procedure here? Why does what happened to Alo Ngata matter?"

Police have a duty to care for everyone, she explained. 

"The public must have confidence in the police that - irrespective of what we have done, what somebody has done, not matter how egregious their conduct is - they are entitled to be properly cared for.

"You cannot judge someone and say, 'Well, they've done something terrible, therefore they fall short of being properly protected by the police.' That would be such a terrible position for New Zealand as a very caring and law-abiding state to be in. We just are not that sort of people," Ms Dyhrberg said.

An internal police investigation found no officers were criminally culpable for Ngata's death.

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It follows serious concerns exposed by TVNZ1’s Sunday about a spit hood put on arrested man Alo Ngata. Source: 1 NEWS

Police have declined to speak about the circumstances around Mr Nagata’s death as the coronial process is still underway.

Police also said no officers have been subject to any internal employment processes, given the finding of the police investigation.

No date has been set for the coronial hearing into Ngata’s death.

An Independent Police Conduct Authority Investigation is due to be released by the end of this month.