Mentally ill man suffocated by police restraint belt
Thomas Orchard, 32, a caretaker at St Thomas Parish Church, died in police custody on 10 October 2012 in Exeter, Devon. Thomas suffered from schizophrenia and was living in supported mental health accommodation.
Disruptions to his medication led to a serious deterioration in his mental health and on the morning of 3 October, police were called to Exeter city high street by concerned members of the public as Thomas was acting erratically.
Thomas was arrested on suspicion of a public order offence and then taken by police van to Heavitree Road Police Station at approximately 11.10am.
Whilst Thomas was detained he was handcuffed, bound in leg restraints and had a thick, padded belt fixed across his mouth and nose so that he could not breathe. This seven-inch wide Emergency Restraining Belt (ERB) is designed to bind the legs or arms but was used on his face as a ‘spit hood’, apparently to prevent him aiming saliva or a bite at officers.
Just over an hour later Thomas was found unconscious in his cell and was taken by ambulance to the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital where he was placed in an induced coma in intensive care. He did not recover consciousness when his sedation was lifted and he was pronounced dead. A post-mortem later recorded that the cause of his death was “related to asphyxiation”.
Thomas’s mother, Alison, said her son had been doing “so well” until he suffered a relapse shortly before his arrest. “He was working, he was very much part of his church community in Exeter. They love him and miss him. He was also getting fit at the local gym; he was very busy”.
The Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) submitted a file of evidence in the investigation to the Crown prosecution Service (CPS). A file about the arresting officer was sent to prosecutors in March 2013 but they ruled there was insufficient evidence for him to be charged with unlawful arrest or that the use of force was unnecessary.
In early July 2013, the IPCC passed a file to the CPS for consideration of serious criminal charges against two custody detention staff, three police officers, one custody sergeant and a nurse who is employed by a contractor. The package of evidence sent to prosecutors includes CCTV footage taken from inside the cell where Thomas was found unresponsive.
The six members of the police staff were put on restricted duties, after Devon and Cornwall Constabulary refused a request by the IPCC for the staff involved in the incident to be suspended.
The IPCC also submitted a file of evidence to the Health and Safety Executive in August 2013 for them to consider corporate charges against Devon and Cornwall Constabulary. The IPCC identified a risk in the way that an ERB was used on Thomas as a “spit/bite hood” and wrote to all chief constables in England and Wales on 1 November 2012, “expressing concern” about using an ERB in this way.
It has been claimed that the company that distributes ERB’s – Pro-Tect Systems – had been training police forces on how to use the belts as “spit/bite hoods”. Minutes of a meeting of the Ministerial Board on Deaths in Custody from February 2013– in which Thomas Orchard’s death is discussed – note that “the company which supplied the equipment [emergency response belt] had been training forces on its use as a hood to prevent spitting and biting”.
On 20 November 2013, the CPS announced that they were considering charges ranging from manslaughter by an unlawful act, manslaughter by gross negligence, misconduct in a public office, corporate manslaughter, perverting the course of justice and Health and Safety offences.
However, a decision on prosecuting the police staff involved has still not been made by the CPS. Furthermore, Thomas’s family were denied access to view the CCTV footage from the police cell until 11th July 2014, almost 2 years after his death.
Thomas’s family released a statement about the impact that delays in the investigation have had on their family:
“One of the hardest things we are having to deal with at the moment is the lack of detail we as a family have about the circumstances of Thomas’s death and the knowledge that we are likely to be waiting a considerable further length of time for the truth to come to light and for Thomas to get the justice he deserves. We have received no adequate justification for the delay.”
Thomas’s sister, Jo, also raised concerns about how people with mental health problems are treated by the state, saying; “My brother’s case should have been treated as a medical crisis rather than a criminal one. He should have been sectioned rather than arrested. If this call was made correctly my brother would still be alive today.”
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