Since launching my campaign to ‘Protect The Protectors’ last year, many officers have come to me with horrendous tales of having being spat at whilst on duty.
As well as being thoroughly unpleasant, spitting blood and saliva at another human being can pose a real risk of transmission of a range of infectious diseases, some with life-changing or even lethal consequences.
It not only causes distress at the time, but can do so for months afterwards if officers have to under go antiviral treatment, sometimes impacting not just on themselves, but also on their families. Anti-viral treatments are not guaranteed to prevent the transmission of infectious diseases, and an officer may have to endure a wait of over six months to find out whether the treatment has been successful.
A third of forces currently use spit guards or hoods in some way, yet when the Metropolitan Police halted the roll-out of their use across London in September last year, a ‘nervousness’ about them resonated through forces across the country.
I am all for informed discussion about the issue, and taking the time to ensure the public understand and appreciate the need for their use will only be a good thing, but the truth is that if people are politically ‘uncomfortable’ about spit guards, I can promise them that somewhere, right now, there is a police officer who is being spat at and who is even more ‘uncomfortable’.
I firstly want to discount the myth that ‘The Left’ is to blame for an unease with the use of spit guards. As a Labour MP, my party was born out of a desire to protect working people in every way. The police are not only working people, but people that dedicate themselves to keeping the rest of us safe. This isn't an issue of right and left, it's an issue of right and wrong – and spitting is wrong, by any measure. No-one should be expected to endure it as part of any job.
A recent briefing published by The Centre for Public Safety cited a case where Metropolitan police were called to a disturbance and arrested a 20-year-old woman on suspicion of a public order offence. The woman, who had hepatitis B, then bit her own lip and spat blood at three officers who had to be taken to hospital for anti-viral treatment.
During a speech to the House of Commons at the end of last year, I shared with MPs the story of Arina Koltsova, a police woman in the Ukraine who died after contracting TB from an offender who spat at her whilst she was trying to arrest him.
Spitting could not be more serious and so in trying to do something about it, I felt that there are two different means of improving the situation. We need both legislative change in Westminster, and we need MPs to lend their political support to Chief Constables to make spit guards available to their officers.
So on the 31st January, I hosted a myth-busting briefing session for MPs to meet with two officers who have been spat at on duty and had thoroughly difficult experiences in the 6 months that followed. The Federation also gave a presentation about spit guards and their use and even allowed MPs to try them on and ask questions. The event was really well attended and MPs want away having been encouraged to contact their own Chief Constable outlining their support for their use.
Then last week, I presented my ‘10 Minute Rule Bill’ to the House of Commons. This is a piece of draft legislation which will look to toughen up the sentences handed out to those who assault police officers, and offer the same protection to all emergency service responders. The bill will also include a clause which would mean an offender who spits at the police will have to provide a blood sample.
In order to do that, we looked to legislation in Australia where the penalty for failing to provide a blood sample for those who have spat at an officer is a $12,000 fine and 12 months imprisonment. My draft bill will propose that we adopt similar measures.
I am pleased to say that my bill passed through to second reading with support from all sides of the House.
I very much hope that this approach will have the desired impact and really start to make a difference in tackling the problem. Please do encourage your local MPs to support both of these initiatives.
This is an updated edition of the article published by Policing Insight at the end of January.