California police defend using spit mask on 12-year-old boy

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Credit: Sacramento Police

Police on Wednesday defended their use of a clear mesh “spit mask” on a combative 12-year-old boy as irate bystanders videotaped the tense encounter in Sacramento while objecting that the boy was being detained.

Officers “appropriately used a spit mask to protect themselves and defuse the situation,” Police Chief Daniel Hahn said in a statement. “I am grateful that ... nobody was injured during this encounter.”

Police also released officer body camera video that shows the boy struggling while officers work to calm him. He repeatedly curses and shouts that he can’t breathe after he is handcuffed and placed face down on the ground, and police pull the mask over his head.

“Hey, hey, you need to calm down, dude. Calm down, OK?” the officer replies.

Police said they spotted the boy running away from a security guard and helped detain the youth April 28. He was later released to his mother and cited for battery against a police officer and resisting officers.

Sacramento attorney Mark T. Harris said he is considering a lawsuit on behalf of the youth and his mother against the city, the security guard, and an employee at a nearby restaurant who he said also helped detain the boy.

Harris heads the Sacramento office of a national civil rights legal firm that also represents the family of Stephon Clark. Clark was an unarmed 22-year-old vandalism suspect who was killed by Sacramento police a year ago, leading to national protests.

The 12-year-old boy was attending a neighborhood carnival with an adult and his older sister when he was confronted by the security guard, Harris said.

“To a certain extent, police were victims of this themselves,” he said. “They didn’t know what was going on.”

The problem was the police response, he said: “They immediately used force to try to detain the young man, it went very quickly to hands around the neck, hands around the arm.”

Harris said it’s not clear that the boy actually spit, but said that even if he did there was no reason to believe it created a health hazard. Moreover, he said police should have removed the mask after the boy’s mother arrived and asked that it be removed because her son has respiratory issues.

“The officer should have de-escalated the hostilities,” Harris said. Instead, the incident eventually drew eight officers along with the security guard and restaurant employee, “all of this for a 12-year-old who at worst was accused of asking people for money, which he wasn’t doing.”