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5 Takeaways From Our Investigation Into Police Use of Spit Hoods

Reporting by The Marshall Project and WTSP in Tampa examined how police continue using the hoods, even as deaths raise troubling questions.

A man in orange prison shorts is being restrained by three officers in a prison cell.
On April 15, 2022, Tim Peters was in distress as he argued with staff at the Hernando County Jail north of Tampa. Deputies pepper sprayed him and covered his head with a mesh hood to prevent him from spitting on them.

Many police departments use mesh bags, commonly known as spit hoods, to cover the heads of people in custody so they can’t spit on officers. Police say the devices are safe. But an investigation by The Marshall Project and WTSP, the CBS affiliate in Tampa, found that in some circumstances, the hoods can be deadly.

Here are five takeaways from our findings, based on thousands of pages of documents, videos and interviews with victims and their families, police departments and experts. The main article of this investigation contains more information.

Police across the country continue to use spit hoods, even as deaths raise troubling questions.

Officers used spit hoods on at least 31 people who died in their custody between 2013 and 2023, according to our investigation. In more than half of those deaths, police used the hood in conjunction with other restraint techniques or tactical weapons, including hog-tying, pepper spray and stun guns. Medical experts say that these combinations often worsen the problems that lead to serious injury or death.

“One death is too many,” said George Kirkham, a Florida State University criminology professor who is an expert in police use of force. “We can say more people die from shootings or beatings, but the families of these folks are devastated just the same.”

Many departments have no policies on deploying the masks — and among the ones who do, the rules vary wildly.

The Marshall Project’s review of policies from 100 departments in 25 states found that most require officers to remove the sacks when a person is vomiting, bleeding from the mouth or suffering from other medical conditions. But only 10 of those departments restrict spit hoods to cases in which someone is actively spitting or biting others, or is about to do so. Only 11 require officers to warn people before putting them in a spit mask. And only 12 policies point out that people in a mental health crisis can experience high distress when in a spit net.

Some policies — or in the absence of a written document, department guidance — can be very vague, critics say. The Polk County Sheriff’s Office, southwest of Orlando, said it doesn’t have a policy, and that spit hoods “are used when it makes common sense.”

Mentions of spit hoods in deaths involving police can remain hidden from public view for months or forever.

Most departments that give patrol officers the masks don’t track how often they are used. And there are no national reporting requirements to disclose if a spit hood was used when someone dies in custody. Officials at the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office, north of Tampa, did not initially tell the public that jail deputies had pepper-sprayed a man and placed two hoods on his head in April 2022. The man, Tim Peters, lost his pulse minutes later and died in a hospital the next day, records show. The sheriff revealed the use of the spit masks only after WTSP reporters pressed the agency for more information and eventually obtained an unredacted 21-minute video of Peters’ death. No officers were charged in Peters’ death.

Some studies have concluded that masks are safe, but some experts say the research is flawed.

Researchers have shown that even dense spit hoods are easier to breathe in than an N95 mask, and study subjects could breathe even in hoods sprayed with artificial saliva. But critics say none of those studies mimicked the chaos and stress of being arrested or held in jail. “These are people who are in a controlled environment,” said Dr. Dan Woodard, who has studied the effects of spit hoods. “They haven’t just finished running from the police or getting punched or hit or thrown to the ground.”

Most research that involved humans tested people’s ability to breathe under dry hoods. And even the artificial saliva used in one study was thinner than real human spit, experts say.

People who have tried to breathe in spit masks during police encounters describe it as a scary experience.

Knoxville Police officers used a hood on Nzinga Bayano Amani, when they arrested the civil rights activist in 2022. Amani said officers misplaced the elastic band of the hood, which is supposed to go around the neck, and Amani struggled to breathe after the band was caught in their mouth. “I knew if at any time I got any more stressed or agitated, there’s a possibility I could have passed out,” Amani said.

Read the full story.

Daphne Duret Twitter Email is a staff writer for The Marshall Project. She reports on policing issues across the country and is based in south Florida.