The Territory’s continued use of spit hoods has now been referred to the United Nations anti-torture watchdog following renewed calls for them to be banned earlier this year.
It comes as the nation’s peak body for people affected by hepatitis is urging calm over fears of the virus being transmitted by saliva – even when it contains blood.
The discussion about spit hoods began in late August when ACT Chief Police Officer Neil Gaughan revealed ACT police officers used the devices.
He confirmed one had been used on a minor – a 16-year-old girl who he said became aggressive with officers after allegedly refusing to give up her alcohol.
The ACT Greens have since urged a ban on spit hoods.
Queensland police most recently announced they would join their policing counterparts in NSW, Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania and prohibit their use, but South Australia is the only state to have legislated a ban.
ACT Greens Spokesperson for Policing Andrew Braddock has questioned why ACT police officers use spit hoods when most police forces across Australia have abandoned the “inhumane” practice.
He’s called for officers to instead be supplied with personal protective equipment, which could include masks.
Those calls for change have been supported by the ACT Human Rights Commission and First Nations-led advocacy group Change the Record.
The latter was recently part of a joint submission made to the United Nations Committee Against Torture which referenced the ACT Government’s continued use of the devices.
The submission urged the UN’s anti-torture watchdog to recommend all Australian governments ban the use of the devices.
Concerns were also raised over the “disproportionate” use of strip searching on First Nations women in the Territory’s jail and the low minimum age of criminal responsibility.
Executive officer at Change the Record Sophie Trevitt described the use of “discriminatory, punitive law-and-order policies” as an “uncomfortable truth”.
“So long as governments insist on [using these] they will never close the gap and we will continue to see Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, mothers and children driven into Australia’s overcrowded prison system,” she said.
“Change the Record, the Human Rights Law Centre and the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services have brought these injustices to the attention of the Committee Against Torture and call for urgent reform.”
CPO Gaughan and the police union have defended the use of spit hoods as a “reasonable” response to a grubby act and have said they can be used safely.
The discussion of spit hoods prompted former and serving police officers to share their stories with Region about the experience of being spat at while on duty.
Officers explained offenders deliberately bite their cheeks so they can spit blood at officers during an arrest. They detailed significant anguish after being spat at.
Writing for Hepatitis Australia, General Practitioner Dr Alice Lam, a doctor with experience dealing with hepatitis B, has sought to allay these concerns.
“Hepatitis C is spread when a sufficient amount of blood from an infected person enters the bloodstream of another person. Hepatitis B is also spread this way, as well as sexually,” Dr Lam said in a statement.
“You cannot get hepatitis B or C through casual contact such as touching, kissing, hugging or sharing food … or from blood or body fluids having contact with intact skin.
“The likelihood of saliva containing a substantial amount of blood and it passing into the recipient’s bloodstream, such as through an open wound, or the eyes or mouth, is so small that the risk of hepatitis from spitting is near-zero.”
Dr Lam referenced a 2018 review that looked at all known studies worldwide of spitting assaults on emergency service workers which found only one plausible case of hepatitis B transmission, where a patient with hepatitis B spat in the eye of an unvaccinated nurse.
The same review found no cases of hepatitis C transmission from spitting.
All officers should be vaccinated for hepatitis B, according to both the Australia New Zealand Policing Advisory Agency and the Australasian Society for HIV, Viral Hepatitis and Sexual Health Medicine (ASHM).
Dr Lam said that blood tests can typically detect hepatitis B virus in one to three months and hepatitis C in three months. There are cures for both if detected.
A spokesperson for ACT Policing said officers could come into contact with various bodily fluids while at work.
“While exposure is sometimes accidental, often officers are exposed when offenders purposely spit saliva and blood or bite officers,” they said.
“Each exposure is assessed on a case-by-case basis and involves initial washing of the exposed area and then assessment and mandatory advice from a health professional.
“Post-exposure screening may be recommended, including testing for communicable diseases such as HIV or hepatitis.”
ACT Policing said it provides ongoing support to affected officers.