Today, a police custody sergeant and two detention officers have been cleared of manslaughter following a retrial at Bristol Crown Court. The trial follows the death, in 2012, of Thomas Orchard a 32-year-old man from Exeter who lived with schizophrenia who had been arrested and removed to a police station whilst in crisis. In terms of me covering these events on here, I want to put on record that I have had no involvement in any way with any process that followed the incident or any contact with any parties involved. What follows are only my own thoughts after following the investigation and trial process over the last five years. It touches on the most difficult of issues: the criminal prosecution of police officers following the death of a vulnerable man.
The police received a call from a member of the public to the place where Mr Orchard was arrested under the Public Order Act. He was restrained upon arrest and removed to a police custody suite. Upon entering custody, it was contended by the police officers who were cleared that he was attempting to spit and bite. They resorted to use of an emergency restraint belt (ERB) which had been issued to them by Devon and Cornwall Police, in order to protect themselves whilst placing him in a cell. Having then removed the ERB and themselves from the cell, Thomas was alone for twelve minutes before concern for his welfare led them to re-enter and an ambulance was called. It was said in court that he died from a hypoxic brain injury and the effects of restraint, his brain having been starved of oxygen.
This is a tragedy on several levels, the obvious human cost and suffering to Mr Orchard’s family being first amongst them. Devon and Cornwall Police have stated in their press release the officers involved have suffered a toll as they go through a four-and-a-half year process to get to this point. They stood trial for this once before, in January 2016, and this is not over: there are ongoing disciplinary considerations because the Independent Police Complaints Commission recommended that a total of seven police officers be considered for gross misconduct hearings. This includes the three defendants and four others involved in his original arrest. Regardless of those proceedings, the Devon and Cornwall Chief Constable remains under corporate investigation by the Health & Safety Executive to consider breaches of health & safety law. And of course, there is still to be an inquest in to his death which I doubt will happen this year. History in other cases suggests it may not happen next year either. This is far from over and the Orchard Family’s campaign continues, quite understandably.
As you may imagine, I’ve been interested in this case since first hearing of it. Early on, my interest was particularly sparked when it became known that the IPCC had written to all Chief Constables about the use of ERBs as an improvised ‘spit guard’. This topic remains controversial now, as several forces consider whether or not to introduce equipment, very different to this ERB, which is aimed at protecting officers. This case then also raises that question about the ability of officers to discern a mental health crisis from behaviour on first presentation in a short timescale: in this particular case, Mr Orchard was reported to the police by a member of the public amidst an ongoing argument. No-one was offering pre-known information about his mental health so the ability to identify crisis concerns rested on the officers who attended the dispute or disturbance which had occurred. So how possible is it to train officers so that mental health concerns are raised as early as possible and how might this effect whether a person who is detained is arrested under public order law, as in this case, or detained for their welfare under the Mental Health Act? We know that Doctors can get this wrong, so officers are not always going to get it ‘right’ – but could we get this better?
And even if someone is detained under the Mental Health Act, there is then the question about whether they should be removed to police custody because of any challenging behaviour; or taken to an A&E department or a mental health trust Place of Safety (PoS) because of the difficulty in officers establishing in a few minutes whether someone’s presentation has an underlying medical cause? Additionally, is any ostensibly necessary restraint in fact, placing someone at even greater risk?! This dilemma, from a case in 2012, is more apposite than ever as police and mental health services are currently waiting to hear how Government will define the future circumstances in which police custody may still be used as a PoS under the MHA. These questions more-or-less directly attend to the view offered by Mr Orchard’s family that if he’d been detained under the MHA and taken to somewhere set up for reception of those in crisis, he’d still be alive today. The Inquest will no doubt attend to those issues and all I am going to do here, is address them in terms of what has been said in the past in other, not-always-identical cases.
Whilst the criminal trial has occurred in Bristol, other proceedings are underway in south London for the inquest in to the death of Olaseni Lewis in 2010. Families are waiting years, only to feel, as Alison Orchard said today outside the Crown Court, “no sense of justice”. My own view is that the families are right to campaign for improvements to policing and I hope the work I’ve done has gone some way towards helping achieve that (I do know there is much more to do). That said, this is not just about policing: as few deaths in custody ever are. This is also about having the correct support infrastructure for officers to access emergency health or mental health pathways, even if it is just for assurances that people are not at risk if they do end up in police custody.
This is about police training, yes – recognition of mental health, understanding the impact of restraint, knowing to seek clinically signposting from paramedics, etc.; but it is also about Place of Safety services which operate to Royal College of Psychiatrists’ Standards on the use of section 136 (2011); it is about the availability and the willingness of ambulance and emergency medical services to support officers’ decision-making. Unfortunately, there have been several incidents where officers have made detentions in situations like this under s136 MHA nad still found themselves excluded from anywhere other than police custody and legal reform is protecting that likelihood going forward, despite argument to the contrary. There will still be lessons to learn here and more facts will emerge from ongoing processes, but as Lord Adebowle said in his 2013 report in to policing and mental health in London, “The police cannot do this alone.”
Winner of the President’s Medal from
the Royal College of Psychiatrists.
Winner of the Mind Digital Media Award.