Disciplinary hearings dropped over Thomas Orchard death

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Disciplinary hearings dropped over Thomas Orchard death

Thomas Orchard died in custody after an emergency restraint belt was put over his face

Misconduct proceedings have been dropped against two detention officers involved in the death of 32-year-old man who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia in 2012.

The Justice Gap has previously reported (here) how Thomas Orchard, a church caretaker, was arrested by Devon and Cornwall Police in October 2012 following a public outburst in Exeter City Centre. It was during Orchard’s arrest that an emergency response belt was used across his face to stop him from biting or spitting.

This belt remained on his face as he was locked in a cell where he subsequently suffered a cardiac arrest. Reports state that the custody officers intervened after twelve minutes of Orchard lying motionless on the floor and he died in hospital a week later.

The police watchdog, the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC), informed the Orchard family last week it had reversed a decision to direct that gross misconduct hearings should take place against the two civilian officers. The process of trying to hold the police to account for what happened to Thomas Orchard has been long and hard fought for. Deborah Coles, the director of INQUEST has said ‘for seven years this family have had to battle against delay, denial and obfuscation’.

The Orchard family have said that IOPC’s decision felt ‘outrageously and ethically wrong to our family; we have been let down by the IOPC’.‘This shameful outcome fails both the family and the public interest,’commented Deborah Coles. ‘Thomas Orchard’s death joints the long list of deaths where the police have not been held accountable to the rule of law.’

The two detention officers and the custody sergeant involved in the arrest were all acquitted in a criminal trial for gross negligence manslaughter in 2017. Earlier this year the Devon and Cornwall police admitted in May that they had mistreated Orchard in custody and were in breach of the Health and Safety at Work Act but they refused to accept that the use of the emergency response belt led to Orchard’s death. The Justice Gap reported (here) how the police were fined £234,500.

The IOPC can instruct police forces to bring a charge against their own officers if it thinks they have a case to answer for misconduct. The watchdogdirected that the police bring charges against the two officers and four police officers in February 2018. The charges against the four police officers were dropped in July this year when the disciplinary panel discontinued the proceedings. The proceedings were dropped not because, as the police argued, there was insufficient evidence of gross misconduct but rather because the panel accepted that there was an abuse of process due to the long delays.

In light of the panel’s decision in July, the IOPC’s decision to drop the directions for gross misconduct proceedings against the two remaining detention officers is said to be because the proceedings are no longer in the public interest.