The following opinion piece by NTPA President, Paul McCue, was published in the Sunday Territorian on 30 April 2023.

If you have a weak stomach, take caution reading ahead.

It’s a busy night in a Northern Territory Police Watch House. You have just arrested a man for a violent assault. He’s already attempted to spit on you and your partner, while you were loading him into the back of your caged police vehicle.
He’s now yelling and resisting as you escort him to the holding cell.

Without warning, he whips back his head, hocks up a giant glob of phlegm and spits in your mouth. “I’ve got AIDs, I’ve got HIV, I’ve got hepatitis C, and I’ve got blood in my mouth,” he says, while laughing in your face. You feel violated and vulnerable, and the experience triggers range of emotions, from horror, to anger, to disgust.

It can be an incredibly traumatic experience that leaves a lasting impact on you, both physically and mentally. Not only is being spat on a physical assault, but it also poses a serious health risk. Frontline police officers will tell you that being spat on is one of the most disgusting and disrespectful acts that can be perpetrated against them. It is often deliberate and designed to humiliate.

The feeling of someone's saliva on your skin or worse, in your mouth and eyes, is a violation of your personal space and dignity. It is especially heinous when an offender does so knowing that they have a communicable disease.

Our members go out every single day to do one job: protect the community. They put their own safety at risk every single shift. That risk includes the exposure to dangerous communicable diseases when they are spat on. This can lead to long periods of testing and treatment, causing undue stress and trauma for officers and their families.

Recently, the Australian Federal Police banned the use of spit guards following an internal review. In a media release on Friday April 14, the AFP stated it is providing officers “equipment and implementing procedures to better protect members from spitting and biting”, yet gave no details about what those “equipment and procedures” are. Last year the Northern Territory Government abandoned the practice for youths but won’t confirm if it is reviewing the use of spit guards on adults in police custody. 

We condemn the removal of an essential piece of Personal Protective Equipment, in the strongest terms. And we will never agree to less protection for our officers.

It has been suggested our members instead kit up in a full-face shield. So why is it ok for police officers to be subjected to that kind of restraint, but a section of the community seems to think it’s just fine that offenders who commit the disgusting acting of spitting or violent offence of biting deserve their rights to be respected to a greater extent than our members?

Let’s be crystal clear. A spit guard is not some Hannibal Lector-type device. It’s made from a lightweight, transparent mesh-like material with a reinforced section around the jawline to prevent spitting and biting. The product used by NT Police is medically certified, was developed in conjunction with UK Police, and is approved by the MET Police Medical Director for use across the United Kingdom.

Our members have told us the banning of spit guards is nothing more than political pandering to a portion of the community that places a higher value on the rights of criminals over the protection of police officers. How would a politician, or judge feel if they were spat on for doing their job? My guess is, they would want the offender prosecuted to the full extent of the law and processes put in place to ensure it never happens again. It’s not part of their job description and it’s certainly not part of ours.

If Government suggests there is an alternative, we invite you to come forward and demonstrate it yourself with a violent offender, who potentially has a communicable disease. The reality is, you will never stop offenders spitting. But it is Government’s role to ensure, if and when that does happen, that our members are protected. 

The assertion that spit guards are not sufficient to stop transmittable diseases may have some merit, while also being absolutely absurd. Just because it’s not an iron clad guarantee you wouldn’t contract a blood borne virus, we should just do away with them?

Without spit guards, the policing environment will become far more dangerous for our members. There are very real risks and consequences of not having proper Personal Protection Equipment in place. It puts police at a higher risk of assault, which can result in physical injuries, mental trauma, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

These concerns are real, they’re significant, and they should be taken seriously by this Government. It is the responsibility of the Northern Territory Government to do more curb occupational violence. It is crucial to protect the police officers who devote their working lives to protecting others.