Inquest jury suggests that the use of restraining belt by police on Exeter man’s face could have played a role in his death.

Thomas Orchard passed away one week following a mental health crisis during which the police placed an ’emergency response belt’ over his face.

An inquest jury has concluded that the prolonged use of a heavy webbing belt on a vulnerable man’s face during a mental health crisis might have contributed to his death.

The jury stated that the way the officers utilized the belt on Thomas Orchard, a church caretaker with paranoid schizophrenia, would have hindered his ability to breathe and increased his stress levels.

Orchard was arrested after a disturbance in Exeter in October 2012 and taken to Heavitree Road police station in the city.

The officers used the ’emergency response belt’ (ERB), initially designed as a limb restraint, as a ‘spit and bite hood’ on Orchard. He suffered a cardiac arrest and brain injury before passing away a week later.

During a six-week inquest, Devon and Cornwall police acknowledged a number of failures regarding the ERB. They admitted that there was a failure to recognize the risk of the belt impacting breathing when used as a spit or bite hood, and that training on the matter was insufficient.

Devon and Cornwall’s acting chief constable, Jim Colwell, offered an unreserved apology for the admitted failings in court.

The jury believed that the use of the ERB was justified to prevent Orchard from biting or spitting, but its prolonged use may have contributed to his death. They also suggested that the police’s acknowledged failures might have had a role.

Orchard’s family has described him as a sensitive, free-spirited man and argued that the police let him down, asserting that his case should have been treated as a medical emergency rather than a criminal incident.

At the 2017 trial of a police sergeant and two detention officers for Orchard’s manslaughter, prosecutors claimed that the ERB was tightly wrapped around his face when he was carried in a prone position and then placed face down in a cell, restricting his ability to breathe. The three individuals were acquitted of manslaughter.

In 2019, Devon and Cornwall police were fined £234,500 after admitting to breaching health and safety laws. However, they never accepted that the use of the belt directly caused Orchard’s death.

Speaking outside the court, Orchard’s younger brother, Jack, stated that he should not have been arrested and should have been taken to a place of safety. His mother, Alison, stated that he was a very quiet and gentle person and criticized the police for demonizing him. Orchard’s older sister, Jo, expressed how terrifying it must have been for her brother to have the ERB placed around his head.

The family was frustrated that the coroner did not allow the jury to reach a conclusion of unlawful killing or acknowledge that the ERB likely played a role in Orchard’s death.

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