Hearings against officers over death of man who collapsed in custody dismissed

Gross misconduct proceedings against four police officers relating to the arrest, detention and death of a man who collapsed in custody have been dismissed.

Thomas 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, the church caretaker who had mental health issues was restrained and an emergency response belt (ERB) was placed across his face for five minutes and two seconds to prevent spitting or biting.

An Emergency Response Belt used to restrain Thomas Orchard
An Emergency Response Belt used to restrain Thomas Orchard

Devon and Cornwall Police held misconduct proceedings against Sergeant Jan Kingshott, who was the custody sergeant when Mr Orchard was taken to Heavitree Road police station; and Sergeant Alexander Kennedy, Pc Rob Dodd, and Pc Mark Nagle who were involved in his detention and restraint.

The panel, which was chaired by Assistant Chief Constable Ben Snuggs, of Hampshire Police, concluded the four officers could not have a fair hearing because the panel had “no confidence” in the disclosure process; the delay had caused “irredeemable prejudice”; and in respect of three of the officers, there had been a departure from the regulatory framework such that the officers could not have a fair hearing.

In a landmark conviction in 2018, the office of the chief constable of Devon and Cornwall Police pleaded guilty to breaches under the Health and Safety at Work Act.

A judge at Bristol Crown Court ruled he could not be sure that the ERB, a tough webbing belt designed to restrain limbs, was a contributory factor in Mr Orchard’s death.

He fined the force £234,500 and ordered it to pay £20,515 in prosecution costs.

At that time, the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) said that arrangements were being made for misconduct hearings to be held by Devon and Cornwall Police.

Speaking after the ruling, Mr Orchard’s parents, Ken and Alison, said: “Strangely, we are not surprised, and yet deeply shocked, at the ruling announced today.

“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.

“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.

Thomas Orchard in a cell at Heavitree Road police station
Thomas Orchard in a cell at Heavitree Road police station

“We are not surprised because, in our assessment, we have witnessed it again and again over the past seven years.

“We are not surprised because, to be honest, we never really had any faith in this tribunal, believing it to be an investigation held – only reluctantly after direction from the IOPC – by the police, for the police.

“However, we also remain deeply shocked. 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 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.”

Thomas Orchard
Thomas Orchard

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 October 3 2012.

In March 2017, Sergeant Kingshott, and civilian detention officers Simon Tansley, and Michael Marsden, were found not guilty of Mr Orchard’s manslaughter by gross negligence.