Thomas Orchard: Police officers avoid misconduct hearing over custody death

The family of a church caretaker who died after being restrained in police custody say they feel “failed beyond belief” by a decision to dismiss misconduct charges against four officers.

Thomas Orchard, 32, suffered a cardiac arrest when he was locked in a cell in Exeter with an emergency response belt placed around his face in October 2012.

He died in hospital seven days later and earlier this year Devon and Cornwall Police was fined £234,500 after admitting health and safety breaches.

However the force announced on Friday the disciplinary proceedings involving custody sergeant Jan Kingshott and three other officers had been discontinued.

An independent panel concluded the officers could not have a fair hearing because of the delay in dealing with the case, disclosure issues and “a departure from the regulatory framework”.

Mr Orchard's family, including father Ken and mother Alison, said in a statement they were “deeply shocked” at the decision.

“Despite their being charged with behaviour that could amount to gross misconduct, no further action will be taken against four police officers whose actions, together with others, in our opinion, directly led to Thomas’ death,” the family said.

“And this is because of, what we believe to be, incompetence, negligence and sloppy practices from the very people and processes that were meant to protect our son.

“As a family we used to believe in the system; we believed that if something bad happened, justice would be served. But no-one and no process that we have witnessed to date has fully explored – openly, honestly and constructively – the catastrophic failings surrounding Thomas’ death.

“We feel let down and have been failed beyond belief.

“The saddest thing is for us is that Thomas’ death was in vain; worse than that, it seems to have reinforced the notion that the Police can behave in ways that we see to have been grossly irresponsible, negligent and reckless … and get away with it.”

Mr Orchard was suffering from a mental health crisis when he was arrested in Exeter city centre for a public order offence at about 11am on 3 October 2012.

He was taken by van to Heavitree Road police station and the ERB, a tough webbing belt designed to restrain limbs, was put around his face. Triple limb restraints were also applied before he was carried into a cell and left on the floor.

Officers re-entered the cell five minutes later to find him in cardiac arrest and he was taken to hospital, where he was pronounced dead on 10 October.

Custody sergeant Jan Kingshott, and civilian detention officers Simon Tansley, and Michael Marsden, were acquitted of Mr Orchard’s manslaughter by gross negligence in March 2017. The CPS had previously decided not to charge three other officers.

Thomas Orchard is carried into a police van after his arrest in Exeter in 2012
Thomas Orchard is carried into a police van after his arrest in Exeter in 2012

Last year a judge at Bristol Crown Court ruled he could not be sure the ERB was a contributory factor in Mr Orchard’s death but said the “potential restriction of breathing” was known, especially if a person with mental health issues was in an “excited and possibly delirious” state.

However Devon and Cornwall Police had refused to hold disciplinary hearings until ordered to do so by the Independent Office of Police Conduct (IOPC).

The misconduct case did not allege the actions of the four officers, PS Kingshott, PS Kennedy, PC Nagle and PC Dodd, caused or contributed to Mr Orchard’s death but stated they “behaved in a manner that breached the standards of professional behaviour”.

Applications by the officers to throw out the case were made during a five-day preliminary hearing held in private last month.

Solicitor Helen Stone, who represented the family, said: “After nearly seven years, no proceedings have yet answered how Thomas came by his death whilst in the custody of Devon and Cornwall police.

“No family should have to wait this long for answers about their loved ones death whilst in the care of the state.”

Deborah Coles, Director of campaign group INQUEST, said Mr Orchard’s death in custody was “was one of the worst in recent policing history”.

“Two months ago this force was fined for criminally unsafe restraint practises exposed by his death. That this disciplinary hearing has been stopped before it even started is simply deplorable.

“For seven years his family have had to battle against delay, denial and obfuscation. This shameful outcome points to the impunity of the police, and a process which frustrates the prevention of abuse of power and ill treatment.

“This undermines any confidence in a desire to learn after needless and preventable deaths.”

Two civilian police detention officers are still facing disciplinary proceedings in a separate hearing.

Devon and Cornwall Police chief constable Shaun Sawyer said: “I accept the decision made by the independent panel. Matters relating to the case are not over yet and there are still ongoing IOPC directed misconduct proceedings against two police staff.

“I understand the significant impact of this long-running matter on the officers, staff, and their families, and of course the family of Thomas Orchard.”