Family of man who died in police custody "cannot comprehend" misconduct proceedings being dropped

24 October 2019, 15:40

Thomas Orchard died in police custody in 2012
Thomas Orchard died in police custody in 2012. Picture: PA

By Megan White

The family of a man who died after being restrained in police custody have said they "cannot comprehend" that misconduct proceedings against officers have been withdrawn.

Thomas Orchard, 32, died in hospital a week after being restrained at Heavitree Road police station in Exeter, Devon, in October 2012.

The church caretaker, who had mental health issues, had an emergency response belt (ERB) placed across his face for five minutes and two seconds to prevent spitting or biting.

But in July, an independent panel dismissed misconduct proceedings against four officers in relation to the case, stating that they could not have a fair hearing.

The Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) announced on Thursday that it had withdrawn a decision to direct misconduct hearings for the two detention officers.

Thomas' parents Alison and Ken in 2017
Thomas' parents Alison and Ken in 2017. Picture: PA

In a statement, Mr Orchard's family said: "As a family 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' death.

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

"We call upon the coroner to examine the circumstances surrounding Thomas' death publicly, openly, honestly and constructively."

A police sergeant and two detention officers were found not guilty of Mr Orchard's manslaughter by gross negligence following a trial at Bristol Crown Court in 2017.

The following year, in a landmark conviction, the office of the chief constable of Devon and Cornwall Police pleaded guilty to breaches under the Health and Safety at Work Act.

The IOPC directed in February 2018 that six officers and staff should face misconduct hearings relating to their involvement in the detention of Mr Orchard.

Both detention officers fall under different regulations to the police officers and would have faced a separate hearing.

Sarah Green, regional director for the IOPC, said: "It is commonly in the public interest to refer matters where there is a case to answer for gross misconduct to a hearing to be tested.

"However on balance, having considered representations from interested parties, I have decided to withdraw the direction in these unusual circumstances.

"It follows that I accept the recommendations of Devon and Cornwall Police that neither staff member should face disciplinary proceedings."

She acknowledged that it had been a "traumatic process for everyone involved" and that it had taken "far too long".

In May, a judge at Bristol Crown Court ruled he could not be sure that the ERB - a tough webbing belt designed to restrain limbs - was a contributory factor in Mr Orchard's death.

He fined the force £234,500 and ordered it to pay £20,515 in prosecution costs.

Shaun Sawyer, Chief Constable of Devon and Cornwall Police, said the force admitting that it had committed a health and safety offence was a "key factor" in the IOPC's decision.

"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," Mr Sawyer said.