Will Bordell
by Will Bordell

This piece was originally published on The Justice Gap.

A police force has been fined £234,500 after admitting that they had mistreated Thomas Orchard, who died in custody at the age of 32. Last week’s decision at Bristol Crown Court follows a seven year battle with Devon and Cornwall’s police since his death in October 2012.

Orchard, who had paranoid schizophrenia, suffered a cardiac arrest when an emergency restraint belt was put over his face to stop spitting or biting. He was left locked in a cell at Heavitree Road police station in Exeter. Reports suggest that those in charge of his custody only intervened when he had been lying motionless for 12 minutes. He died a week later.

Orchard’s father Ken, speaking outside court, described his son’s death as ‘needless and avoidable’. ‘Having watched and listened to much evidence over the years, we’re shocked and horrified that they are still denying that those failings in any way contributed to Thomas’s death,’ he said. ‘Despite the claims of the chief constable we have seen very little actual evidence of remorse.’

The family’s solicitor, Helen Stone of Hickman & Rose, said that the force had been ‘properly punished for its admitted failure to adhere to basic safety standards in this tragic case. The fact that Devon and Cornwall pleaded guilty to breaching health and safety law is a positive step for the public’s ability to hold the police to account. It should send a clear message to police around the country regarding their obligations to members of the public.’

Whilst the police pleaded guilty to breaching the Health and Safety at Work Act last October as a result of inadequately training officers to use emergency restraint belts, they do not accept that use of the belt definitely caused Orchard’s death. Orchard’s family was shocked when last month’s trial of that issue was inconclusive on the question of causation.

The judge did say, however, that a change of policy that allowed an emergency restraint belt to be used ‘as a hood’ took place ‘without any risk assessment’. Devon and Cornwall police argued that no injuries had been reported despite the belt being used in this way hundreds of times before Orchard’s death.

In the judge’s view, this point could not take away from his assessment that ‘it was only a matter of time’ before someone was going to be ‘killed or very seriously injured’. Using the belt ‘as a spit or bite guard’, he said, ‘didn’t automatically restrict breathing […] but it had the capacity to do so in certain circumstances’.

Helen Stone expressed concern that this case exposed the ‘worryingly haphazard’ use of equipment by the UK’s police forces. ‘Currently there is no national oversight of the way this equipment is procured, tested and used. Each force is effectively able to make its own decisions – and its own deadly mistakes. This is deeply concerning.’

According to the Guardian, this is ‘the first time a British police force has admitted to an offence in such circumstances’.