Police plead guilty to criminal failure to ensure man's safety

By agency reporter
October 23, 2018

On 19 October 2018, the Office of the Chief Constable for Devon and Cornwall Police pleaded guilty to charges under the Health and Safety Act, in relation to the police force’s use of an Emergency Response Belt (ERB) to restrain Thomas Orchard. Thomas, a 32 year old church caretaker, was detained by police on 3 October 2012 and died on 10 October 2012. This is the first ever guilty plea on Health and Safety charges from a police force in relation to a death in custody.

Chief constable Shaun Sawyer, as a representative of his office, sat in Bristol Crown Court to face the charges which relate to a breach under Section 3 and Section 33 of the Health and Safety Act 1974, and were brought by the Crown Prosecution Service. However, the court has not yet determined whether the use of the ERB caused Thomas’ death. As such there will be a further hearing, known as a Newton Hearing, to examine causation and to consider the sufficiency of officer training concerning the use of the ERB. The hearing is listed for the 15 April 2019 for three to four days, and there will be a separate sentencing hearing in May.

This is only the second Health and Safety prosecution of a police force in relation to a death following contact with police. It will also be the first ever successful prosecution relating to a death in police custody (with the previous charge relating to the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes). Since 1990, there has never been a successful murder, manslaughter or corporate manslaughter prosecution against a police officer or force following a death in custody or contact with police. This is despite numerous unlawful killing and highly critical conclusions at inquests.

Thomas was a fit and physically healthy 32 year old church caretaker, living independently in supported accommodation at the time of his death. He had a history of mental ill health and a diagnosis of schizophrenia. On 3 October 2012 he was arrested and detained by Devon and Cornwall officers in Exeter City Centre following reports of his bizarre and disorientated behaviour.

He was transported by police van to Heavitree Road Police Station. Upon arrival, in addition to the triple limb restraints applied, an ERB made from a tough impermeable webbing fabric, was put around his face. The ERB remained held around his face as he was carried face down to a cell, where he was left lying unresponsive on the floor. By the time officers re-entered his cell, Thomas was in cardiac arrest. He was transferred to hospital and pronounced dead on 10 October 2012.

Alison Orchard, mother of Thomas said: “For over six years Devon and Cornwall Police have consistently refused to accept any responsibility for Thomas’ needless and avoidable death. We welcome today’s guilty plea and the fact that they are finally admitting to some failings.

"However, having watched and listened to much evidence over the years, we are shocked and horrified that they still deny that those failings in any way contributed to Thomas’ death.

"Despite the claims of the Chief Constable, we see little actual evidence of remorse.

"Therefore, whilst our family does not relish the prospect of yet another hearing, we are pleased that the defendant’s denial that its criminal conduct caused Thomas’ death will now be tested in open court. 

"We will continue to fight for justice for Thomas and are committed to doing all we can to reduce the shameful frequency with which people with mental health difficulties die in police custody. Sadly, we have come to the conclusion that change will only come about when Police authorities are forced to take responsibility and that is our hope as we go forward with Thomas’ case.”

Deborah Coles, Director of INQUEST said: “This historic guilty plea is long awaited acknowledgement by Devon and Cornwall police of the criminally unsafe restraint belt used in Thomas’ brutal restraint. It should not have taken his needless death to expose the dangerous and unregulated use of this restraint equipment.

"This plea comes against a backdrop of escalating use of force by police, a rise in restraint related deaths and deaths of those in mental health crisis. Corporate responsibility for dangerous culture and practice within policing is rarely the focus of scrutiny and accountability. This has got to change.

"It is unacceptable that six years after Thomas’s death, his family are still having to wait for accountability and answers.

Helen Stone, solicitor at Hickman and Rose said: Chief Constable Sawyer’s guilty plea on behalf his office is welcome news.

"As far as we are aware, this is the first time a police force has admitted to a health and safety breach in connection with a death in police custody. It therefore opens up a new front in society’s fight against state wrongdoing.

"All police forces should now review how equipment is approved, reviewed, and trained for use to ensure not only that they comply with the law, but that no other members of the public are put at risk as Thomas was.”

* INQUEST https://www.inquest.org.uk/

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