Amnesty International has called on the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) to suspend the use of spit hoods after “an admission they provide no protection from Covid-19”.
The organisation said there were implications for other UK police forces which have the same make of equipment.
The PSNI began using the hoods during lockdown, after incidents where suspects coughed or spat at officers.
Amnesty claimed the pandemic had been used “as cover” to roll out their use.
The human rights body has long had serious reservations about the use of the hoods.
They are made of a mesh-type fabric, and are placed over an individual’s head to prevent them biting or spitting at officers.
The Northern Ireland Policing Board approved their limited introduction at the end of March, after previously withholding consent.
‘Counter the virus’
The PSNI wrote to Amnesty two weeks ago in response to concerns they raised.
The police letter states the manufacturers have informed them the hoods are “not designed to stop airborne pathogens or respiratory droplets etc (i.e. Covid-19)”.
But the PSNI added they could “counter the virus” if contained in saliva or blood when spitting or biting.
The PSNI said the spit hoods had been used 29 times between the end of March and 23 June
As is procedure, the Police Ombudsman has been informed about each incident.
“The police have issued spit and bite guards as a temporary measure for use during the Covid-19 pandemic,” said Ch Supt Sam Donaldson.
“We will continue to review this position in light of all available information.”
‘Weaponising of Covid’
Analysis by Dominic Casciani, BBC Home Affairs Correspondent
Spit guards or hoods aren’t in universal use by all British police.
The basic rule is that they should only be placed on a suspect who’s already spat or bitten, or it’s clear they’re about to.
And in England and Wales, the combined police chiefs haven’t pronounced that they should be deployed to protect officers from the coronavirus.
Some campaigners say the guards are degrading and dangerous – although the Metropolitan Police’s medically-supervised tests found they presented no risk to a suspect’s breathing.
The Police Federation of England and Wales – representing front-line officers – believes they’re a defence against the “weaponising” of Covid by dangerous offenders.
It believes there’s no evidence to suggest using spit guards increases the risk of infection to officers.
That’s because by the time a constable deploys the covering on a suspect, they will almost certainly already have been subjected to a grim assault, with all the disease dangers that come with it.
Amnesty International’s Patrick Corrigan said: “The pandemic has been used as cover to roll out these controversial restraint devices in Northern Ireland in the face of the scientific evidence.”
The organisation added that with other UK forces using identical kit, police chiefs should “make it crystal clear to officers” that the hoods “do not offer any protection” from Covid-19.
“Police forces across the UK should now withdraw them from use in possible or suspected cases of COVID,” it said.
The Northern Ireland Policing Board has already committed to reviewing their use later this year.