Originally published May 31, 2013
The spit mask—or spit hood or spit sock or spit net—serves a reasonable goal: It protects law enforcement personnel from the potentially deadly bodily fluids of an aggressive detainee. The cheap, disposable device can be quickly pulled over the offender’s face, and just as easily removed. If used properly, it’s perfectly safe; but it can be used unnecessarily, or even inappropriately, as when it’s used to trap pepper spray on its victim’s skin or when it contributes to a choking death.
Dallas police used the mask on a 25-year-old man they were detaining on warrants last month. He’d resisted officers, and tried to spit on them. The mask was clearly a good call in this case—and, after learning that the man tested positive for HIV and hepatitis, authorities charged him with assault.
But another recent incident reveals the spit mask as part of an arsenal of tricks that overzealous law enforcement officials can harness to put those in their mercy in their place. When Las Vegas cops brought 110-pound, 25-year-old Crystal Williams into the Clark County Family Court building last month, they chastised her for talking too loudly while waiting for her hearing—so they handcuffed her, placed her in a restraint chair, and put a spit mask on her. She says a marshal then choked her while repeating, “You’re in my house now.” Another marshal backs up her story, but the investigation has faded away.
It’s the alleged choking that was at issue in Williams’ case, not the spit mask itself, which was just part of a sweeping show of force seemingly intended to bully this woman into submission; maybe the marshal forgot his pepper spray.
Video footage shows Maine Correction Center Captain Shawn Welch pepper spraying Paul Schlosser, who suffers from bipolar disorder and hepatitis C, in June 2012. Schlosser had refused to leave his cell to get medical attention for a self-inflicted wound. In the ensuing struggle, he spit at officers. Guards put him in a restraining chair, doused him with pepper spray, and put a spit mask on, keeping the pepper spray concentrated on Schlosser’s skin. Welch can be heard on tape repeating, “If you’re talking, you’re breathing.” He also seemed to refer to earlier confrontations he had with the prisoner; this may have been the captain’s shot at revenge.
Schlosser was only allowed to wash his burning, irritated face almost a half hour later. Cpt. Welch was briefly dismissed for using excessive force, but ultimately reinstated when he appealed that ruling. The Maine Legislature’s Criminal Justice Committee and the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition mounted investigations into whether this is a common practice.
The spit mask is also connected to Raul Pinet’s death at the Onondaga County Justice Center in New York in August 2010. Police had arrested him after multiple Syracuse neighbors called 911 because he was acting strangely and violently, presumably under the influence of drugs. He died of asphyxiation, apparently while a spit mask was improperly attached to his face. Video had also caught deputies kneeling on his shoulders.
And those aren’t the only injuries or deaths this little gadget has been connected to. The spit mask is especially dangerous when it’s used on intoxicated, ill, or pepper sprayed prisoners who are then left unattended, risking the possibility that they’ll choke on their own vomit, as did a drunk homeless man in Fairfax County in 2001. It’s an innocuous, even benign little thing—but a bad cop can turn any tool into a weapon of humiliation, or worse.
Sources on following page.