Police disciplinary hearings dropped over Thomas Orchard death

Family of Orchard, who died in 2012 after restraint by officers, call decision ‘ethically wrong’

The family of a church caretaker with mental health problems who died after being restrained at a police station have expressed anger after disciplinary proceedings against two detention officers were dropped.

Thomas Orchard, 32, died after a heavy webbing belt was placed across his face while he was being restrained in Exeter following a public order incident in 2012.

On Thursday, the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) told the Orchard family it had reversed a decision to direct that gross misconduct hearings should take place against the two civilian officers.

Earlier this year, gross misconduct hearings against four police officers – a sergeant and three constables – were discontinued after they argued there had been an abuse of process because of issues including the lapse in time since Orchard’s death and concerns over the disclosure process.

The detention officers, along with the sergeant, were cleared of manslaughter at Bristol crown court in 2017.

Orchard’s family said: “We are completely unable to comprehend how people who were charged with manslaughter can now be allowed to face absolutely no scrutiny for their work practices in relation to Thomas’s death.

“This decision feels outrageously and ethically wrong to our family; we have been let down by the IOPC.”

The family have long said achieving justice for Orchard may take many years and will now work towards an inquest. “We call upon the coroner to examine the circumstances surrounding Thomas’s death publicly, openly, honestly and constructively,” they said.

The office of the chief constable of Devon and Cornwall police admitted breaches under the Health and Safety at Work Act related to Orchard’s death and was fined £234,500. But the latest decision means no police or civilian officers have been held to blame.

The IOPC said that after proceedings against the officers were discontinued, the force asked the police watchdog to review the position of the detention officers. It decided it was not in the public interest for the disciplinary hearings to take place.

CCTV footage of Thomas Orchard being restrained

The IOPC regional director Sarah Green said: “We recognise that this has been a traumatic process for everyone involved, and that throughout it has taken far too long.”

Deborah Coles, the director of the charity Inquest, said: “Thomas’s shocking death, following restraint by police and staff whilst he was suffering a mental health crisis, raised serious concerns about policing practices.

“Evidence heard at the trials and health and safety prosecution exposed criminally unsafe restraint practices. Today’s IOPC decision once again calls into question the ability of the IOPC to ensure that police and detention officers are properly held to account for their actions.

“For seven years this family have had to battle against delay, denial and obfuscation. This shameful outcome fails both the family and the public interest. It points to the impunity of the police, and a process which frustrates the prevention of abuse of power and ill-treatment.”

Helen Stone, a solicitor at Hickman & Rose, who represents the family, said: “The IOPC decision means that these detention officers can continue to work in contact with the public, without having to account, in an employment context, for their actions towards Thomas.”

The chief constable of Devon and Cornwall police, Shaun Sawyer, said: “Whilst I welcome today’s decision, I understand the significant impact of this long-running matter on staff, officers and their families, and of course the family of Thomas Orchard.”

Orchard was a fit and physically healthy man living independently in supported accommodation. He had a history of mental illness and a diagnosis of schizophrenia. On 3 October 2012, he was arrested and detained by officers in Exeter.

He was transported by police van to Heavitree Road police station. Upon arrival, a US-made emergency response belt, constructed from a tough webbing fabric, was put around his face as a spit or bite hood.

The ERB remained held around his face as he was carried face-down to a cell, where he was left lying on the floor. By the time officers re-entered the cell, Orchard was in cardiac arrest.

Contributor

Steven Morris

The GuardianTramp

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