The family of a mentally ill man who died after a restraint belt was placed across his face while in police custody have spoken of their “dismay” after a judge ruled he could not be sure it contributed to his fatal cardiac arrest.
Alison Orchard said her son Thomas’s death was “caused directly by sloppy and dangerous practices” within Devon and Cornwall Police.
Mr Orchard, 32, died in hospital seven days after being arrested and taken to Heavitree Road police station in Exeter, Devon, in October 2012.
During his detention Mr Orchard, who had paranoid schizophrenia, was restrained and an emergency response belt (ERB) was placed across his face.
The restraints were removed and the church caretaker was left in a locked cell, where he lay apparently motionless for 12 minutes before custody staff re-entered and started resuscitation.
A post-mortem examination found he died from a severe hypoxic-ischemic brain injury seven days after suffering the cardiac arrest.
Judge Julian Lambert said it was not clear from the CCTV evidence inside the police station that the ERB obstructed Mr Orchard’s breathing.
Mrs Orchard said: “As a family, we are nothing but dismayed by the judge’s decision. It is really hard to believe after all we have witnessed.
“But more than anything we have always been hopeful that Thomas’s death would not have been in vain and lessons would have been learnt from it.
“We therefore hope, despite his decision about causation of Thomas’s death, that the judge will consider both the culpability of Devon and Cornwall Police in their breach of the health and safety regulations and the potential for harm by that breach is of the very highest order when he makes his decisions on sentencing.”
In a landmark conviction in 2018, the office of the chief constable of Devon and Cornwall Police admitted breaches under the Health and Safety at Work Act but disputed that the belt contributed to Mr Orchard’s death.
A three-day trial of issue was held at Bristol Crown Court where prosecutors alleged the belt played a “significant” role in Mr Orchard’s death.
Having reviewed the evidence, Judge Lambert said: “For the ERB to be a significant contributory cause of death, I would have to be sure of the position and tightness of the belt around the face to restrict breathing.
“Having examined the evidence, reviewed the images and hearing the evidence over the last three days it is not clear to me on this issue.
“I have therefore concluded that I cannot be sure on the issue of causation.”
The court had earlier heard the ERB was first approved for use by the force as a limb restraint in a custody setting in 2002 but was later used as a spit or bite guard.
After Mr Orchard’s death, laboratory tests were carried out on the US-made webbing belt.
The belt formed a “seal” around the mouth of a dummy head when wet and in a certain position and the material restricted airflow more than tea towels, overalls, a handkerchief and dust masks.
Home Office pathologist Dr Russell Delaney told the court it was not possible for him to conclude the ERB contributed to Mr Orchard’s death.
He said that, if the judge found the belt had restricted Mr Orchard’s breathing, it would be one of the factors in the “multifactorial” death.
A second pathologist, Dr Deryk James, said the placing of the ERB over Mr Orchard’s face “could have been the straw that broke the camel’s back” but concluded it could not be “ascertained” what role the belt played in his death.
Jason Beer QC, representing Devon and Cornwall Police, said there were five other “plausible causes” for Mr Orchard’s death.
Solicitor Helen Stone, who represents the Orchard family, said: “This is the first time any force has pleaded guilty to health and safety breaches in relation to a death in custody and is, in itself, a positive step forward for justice and the public’s ability to hold the police to account for their actions.”
In a written statement, Devon and Cornwall Police Chief Constable Shaun Sawyer said: “The judge decided that he was not satisfied the use of the ERB on Thomas Orchard caused or contributed to his death.
“I respect this decision, indeed it has always been the position of Devon and Cornwall Police.
“My primary thought is for the family of Thomas Orchard. The last six-and-a-half years is something I and no family would want to go through.”
The force will be sentenced on May 3.