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IOPC admits death in custody case went on 'far too long'


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Proceedings withdrawn against detention officers seven years after incident.

Thomas Orchard died in hospital seven days after being arrested

Thomas Orchard died in hospital seven days after being arrested

Date - 25th October 2019
By - Gary Mason
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The Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) has admitted that ‘it has taken far too long’ to deal with a death in custody case involving four Devon and Cornwall police officers and two civilian detention officers.

The IOPC also said it needed to work on improvements within the organisation around ‘timeliness’ after halting proceedings against the two civilian detention officers this week.

The proceedings in the case involving the death of Thomas Orchard, have been going on for seven years. This week the IOPC announced that it has withdrawn the decision to direct misconduct hearings for two detention officers involved in the case.

Mr Orchard, 32, died in hospital seven days after being arrested and taken to Heavitree Road police station in Exeter in October 2012.

While in custody Mr Orchard, who had paranoid schizophrenia, was restrained and an Emergency Response Belt (ERB) was placed across his face to prevent spitting and biting.

But a judge ruled he could not be sure that the ERB, designed to restrain limbs, was a contributory factor in Mr Orchard’s death.

In July this year a disciplinary panel dismissed gross misconduct proceedings against four officers because the seven year gap between the incident and the hearing had caused ‘irredeemable prejudice.’

It said they could not have a fair hearing and in the case of three of the officers there had been a departure from the regulatory framework which left the panel with ‘no confidence in the disclosure process.’

The panel chaired by Assistant Chief Constable Ben Snuggs, sat in private for four days and announced its decision at a public disclosure held at Devon and Cornwall Police headquarters.  

The two remaining detention officers, who fall under different regulations to the police officers, would have faced a separate hearing.

The IOPC announced yesterday that as a result of the July decision in relation to the officers, it has decided to withdraw its direction for the two remaining detention officers.

Regional Director Sarah Green said: “It is commonly in the public interest to refer matters where there is a case to answer for gross misconduct to a hearing to be tested. However on balance, having considered representations from interested parties, I have decided to withdraw the direction in these unusual circumstances. It follows that I accept the recommendations of Devon and Cornwall Police that neither staff member should face disciplinary proceedings.

“We recognise that this has been a traumatic process for everyone involved, and that throughout it has taken far too long. We are working hard to make improvements on timeliness not just in our own organisation, but with other public bodies involved in the overall procedures following a death in custody.

 “It is vital that we investigate the circumstances of tragic incidents such as this and most importantly, that police forces learn from them. We are pleased to see that a recent HMICFRS report said that Devon and Cornwall Police have made improvements to how they care for people in custody.”

In March 2017 one officer and two civilian detention officers were found not guilty of Mr Orchard’s manslaughter by gross negligence

In a landmark conviction in 2018 the force admitted that it had committed a health and safety offence contrary to the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 in relation to the use of the belt.

Recruitment was put on hold in the force after it was fined £234,500 for health and safety breaches.

The IOPC says it will make a decision on publishing its reports on the case once all proceedings have concluded, including a potential future inquest.

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