Police use of spit hoods scrutinized after Black man's death

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In this image taken from police body camera video provided by Roth and Roth LLP, a Rochester police officer puts a hood over the head of Daniel Prude, on March 23, 2020, in Rochester, N.Y. Video of Prude, a Black man who had run naked through the streets of the western New York city, died of asphyxiation after a group of police officers put a hood over his head, then pressed his face into the pavement for two minutes, according to video and records released Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2020, by his family. Prude died March 30 after he was taken off life support, seven days after the encounter with police in Rochester. (Rochester Police via Roth and Roth LLP via AP)

NEW YORK – Not five minutes after police slipped a “spit hood” over Daniel Prude's head, the 41-year-old Black man went limp. A week later, he was taken off life support.

Prude's suffocation in Rochester, New York, in March has drawn new attention to the hoods — mesh bags that have been linked to other deaths — and the frequent reliance on police to respond to mental health emergencies.

His death has underscored one of the top demands of the police reform movement: that certain duties should not be handled by law enforcement but by social workers or mental health experts. Seven officers involved in the encounter were suspended with pay Thursday.

While many in law enforcement defend the hoods as vital to prevent officers from being spit on or even bitten — a concern that has taken on new importance during the coronavirus pandemic — critics have denounced them as dangerous and inhumane. For some, they evoke hoods used on prisoners at U.S. government overseas detention sites or “black sites.”

Amnesty International condemned the use of spit hoods Thursday, a day after Prude's family made public body camera video and police reports it obtained from the Rochester department. The organization said the hoods are particularly dangerous when a person is already in distress, as Prude appeared to be.

The hoods often “looks like something out of Abu Ghraib,” said Adanté Pointer, an Oakland civil rights lawyer who has handled several cases involving the devices. “They’re often used in a punitive way.”

Prude, in Rochester to visit his brother, was taken by police for a mental health evaluation just hours before the fatal encounter after he was said to have expressed suicidal thoughts. Prude's brother told police he was calm when he returned to his house but later got high on PCP and ran away, prompting the brother to call 911.

Police found Prude wandering the street naked after allegedly smashing a storefront window, and he could be seen on body camera footage spitting in the direction of officers and heard claiming to be infected with coronavirus. Officers said that led them to employ the hood.