Published on 7 Oct 2013 Sections ,

Forces warned over restraining belts on detainees’ heads

Home Affairs Correspondent

The police watchdog issues a warning to officers to stop using restraining belts on detainees’ heads following a man’s death. His family wants to see CCTV footage from the police station.

The police watchdog issues a warning to police to stop using restraining belts on detainees' heads, following a man's death. (G)

Police forces in England and Wales have been warned not to use a special restraint belt, normally meant for binding someone’s legs or arms, as a “spit hood” around detainees’ heads, Channel 4 News has learned.

The Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) has written to forces “expressing concern” over the use of the belt in this way. It follows an incident involving a 32-year-old man in Exeter who was restrained in custody and later died.

Thomas Orchard (below), who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, was arrested on suspicion of a public order offence in Exeter in October 2012, after police were called to a report of a disturbance. He was taken to police station in the city where he became unresponsive while in a cell. He died later in hospital.

The IPCC’s warning was prompted by the discovery that during Mr Orchard’s detention by Devon and Cornwall police, a seven-inch wide “emergency response belt” was placed on or around his face in order to stop him spitting or biting, Channel 4 News understands.

The cause of Mr Orchard’s death has not yet been fully established, and the results of a Home Office post-mortem examination have not been made public while the CPS considers criminal charges against the officers and police staff involved.

However, an IPCC publication entitled Deaths During or Following Police Contact, published in July, describes the death of a man appearing to fit the description of Thomas Orchard. “The cause of death recorded in the post-mortem related to asphyxiation,” it states.

In an interview with Channel 4 News, the family of Mr Orchard described the events of the last year as “absolute agony” and say they are desperate for more information about how the 32-year-old was restrained.

“We don’t know how, or why – fully – that it [the emergency response belt] was applied,” said Mr Orchard’s sister, Jo. “We have massive concerns about its use.”

Channel 4 News understands that the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) – which issues guidance on restraint methods used by forces – was unaware the belts were being used in this way.

Furthermore, when the belts were being evaluated seven years ago by Acpo, together with an independent group of health professionals, Channel 4 News understands that no suggestion was ever made that these devices could or should be used other than on legs and arms.

‘Accountability’

Deborah Coles, co-director of Inquest, a charity which helps families of people who have died in custody, said: “The police at an individual and corporate level must be held accountable for the exercise of their powers. Nowhere is this more important than where a vulnerable citizen dies in their custody following the use of force.

“Questions must be asked about the use of the ERB [emergency response belt], who sanctioned it and what monitoring and regulation of its use took place.”

Emergency response belts – seven-inch wide soft style restraining belts, made from strengthened fabric and straps secured by Velcro – were originally developed in the United States and have been used by police forces in the UK since 2000. Their primary function is to help restrain and control a violent or injured person by binding their legs and arms.

In a statement, the IPCC said: "The IPCC identified a risk in the way that an emergency restraint belt (ERB) was used on Mr Orchard as a spit hood by Devon and Cornwall Constabulary and wrote to all chief constables in England and Wales on 1 November 2012. 
"The letter expressed concern that use of an ERB in this way posed a risk to individuals.
"The IPCC highlighted the need for any other body using an ERB in such a way to carry out risk assessments."

Training videos on the internet show individuals being wrapped in the belt around legs, midriff or chest area. The belt is then tightened and secured with Velcro straps. Handles on each side of the belt allow the person to be carried horizontally if needed. Used correctly, the “emergency response belts” are considered useful and safe devices for preventing those restrained from lashing out and injuring either themselves or those detaining them.

Channel 4 News understands that between eight and ten forces are currently using the belts, though it’s not known if forces other than Devon & Cornwall Police have been using them in relation to people’s heads.

The programme has also been told that up to 20 hospital trusts, including some high security psychiatric hospitals, have also been using the belts.

Emergency response belts are distributed in the UK by Pro-Tect Systems. The company had its Taser distribution licence revoked in 2010 after it was found to have supplied non-approved X-12 Taser weapons to Northumbria police, which were used during a stand-off with gunman Raoul Moat.

Under scrutiny

Now the company could also face scrutiny over its training methods involving the ERBs. It has been claimed that Pro-Tect Systems had been training forces on how to use the belts as “spit/bite hoods”.

Minutes of a meeting of the Ministerial Board on Deaths in Custody from February – in which Thomas Orchard’s death is discussed – note that “the company which supplied the equipment [emergency response belt] had been training forces on its use as a hood to prevent spitting and biting”. It states in the same paragraph that “Acpo did not endorse its use as a spit/bite hood”.

Mark Williams, a former safety training officer with Kent police who now conducts emergency response belt training on behalf of Pro-Tect Systems (and who trained Devon & Cornwall Police in the use of ERBs), denied to Channel 4 News that he had ever taught using the ERBs as a spit or bite hood “as a specific technique”.

But he says that there may be occasions when using the ERBs in that way is deemed a “viable option”, especially if an officer is in fear of being bitten by an individual who has a transmittable disease.

“Police officers will make use of force decisions based on the totality of the circumstances and the options available to them at the time,” he said.

“There will always be times when police officers or staff may step outside of what has been instructed from a manual of guidance, which doesn’t make it necessarily wrong, but as long as the officers can justify they were using force to achieve a necessary legitimate aim.”

We don’t know how, or why – fully – the emergency response belt was applied. We have massive concerns about its use Jo Orchard

The Crown Prosecution Service is reviewing a file of evidence on the case and is expected to decide in the new year if any criminal charges should be brought against the officers and police staff involved.

The Health and Safety Executive, which has powers to prosecute police forces, has also confirmed to Channel 4 News that it is considering whether to launch a formal investigation.

Devon & Cornwall Police says it has currently suspended the use of emergency response belts (ERBs) as spit/bite hoods. But the force will now be under pressure to explain why it approved such a use in the first place.

The force’s policy from January this year on issues including restraint devices still appears to endorse this secondary use as spit hood.

The guidance says: “The ERB may be applied around the head in cases where the subject is, or is likely to head butt, spit or bite in order to protect the subject and to increase officer safety. This must be carried out with approved training guidelines.”

The file of evidence on Thomas Orchard’s case, which has been handed to the Crown Prosecution Service, relates to two custody detention staff, three police officers, one custody sergeant and a nurse who is employed by a contractor, according to an IPCC statement released in July.

“It will be a matter for the Crown Prosecution Service to determine whether criminal charges will be brought against any of those police staff involved in Mr Orchard’s detention on that day” said IPCC Commissioner Rachel Cerfontyne.

Call for inquest

The IPCC told Devon and Cornwall Police that they believed the officers and staff members should be suspended while criminal charges were being considered. Instead, the force placed them on restricted duties.

“I think it’s disgusting that these officers have not been suspended yet,” said Jo Orchard. “I think it’s absolutely crucial that they are until at least there’s some sort of inquest and the truth is heard.”

Her brother had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and was living semi-independently in Exeter at the time of his death. He had a job as a part-time caretaker at a local church hall in the St Thomas area of the city. It is understood a mental health worker visited him daily.

“I think Thomas was in probably the best period of his life over the last ten years,” said Mr Orchard’s father, Ken. “He had grown in happiness and stability and I’d never seen him happier. And that really made this tragedy all the more poignant.”

But Thomas Orchard had experienced a rapid decline in his mental health in the days before his arrest. His family believe that the local mental health trust was on the verge of sectioning him under the mental health act when he walked into the city centre on 3 October last year.

“I think that Tom’s mental health had deteriorated quite significantly,” Jo said. “He was seen approaching people in the city centre and behaving hugely erratically”.

At one point, it is understood, he appeared to be remonstrating with an Asian man. Eyewitnesses claim he was being abusive in the street and the police were called.

At around 11.10am, Thomas Orchard was arrested on suspicion of a public order offence. He had limb restraints applied and was placed in a police van. The journey to Heavitree Road police station took four minutes.

It is not clear at what stage in custody an emergency response belt was placed on or around his head, but within half an hour of his arrival at the police station he was reportedly found “unresponsive” in his cell.

An ambulance arrived at the police station at 11.47am. Twenty-five minutes later he was admitted to the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital. Mr Orchard was put into an induced coma, according to his family. “He never regained consciousness,” Jo said. He died just after 6pm on October 10.

“A year ago today we were embarking on the worst week of our lives,” says Ken Orchard. “Watching Tom struggle for his life and not winning the struggle. It’s difficult to find any support, any emotional support for that. It’s difficult for anyone to understand what we’ve been through unless they’ve been through the same. So it’s important to be together with others who understand the trauma.”

‘Frustrating events’

At their family home in Crediton, outside Exeter, Mr Orchard’s parents Ken and Alison, his brother Jack and sister Jo told Channel 4 News about their increasing frustration in the year since his death. They say there has been “a lack of compassion from the powers that be”.

“We have questions about why Thomas wasn’t sectioned,” says Jack, “and why he was arrested in the first place. We have questions about why he was restrained and we have questions about why the ERB was used on my brother.

“I think the week Thomas was in intensive care was probably the toughest week which we’ve ever faced. We don’t feel like we know a lot more a year on from that week.”

In particular, the Orchard family want to be allowed to view the CCTV footage from the police station which captures the sequence of events following Mr Orchard’s arrival in custody.

They say they’ve been told that they can’t see the CCTV in case it prejudices any witness statements which they may give. Although it will be harrowing, they feel they have to watch it.

Jo said: “We need to understand what happened to Tom, and unfortunately seeing the CCTV footage is the only real evidence we have to work out exactly what happened so that we know what we’re fighting here.

“Quite often what you don’t know, your mind fills in. We know it’s horrendous. We’ve lost Thomas under horrible, horrible, circumstances. It feels like it can’t get much worse and at this point we just need answers.”

Bewildered by the events of last year and visibly drained by the process which has followed, Thomas’s mother Alison says she feels like she has nowhere to go.

“It’s like I feel very little. I feel as if I’m against a huge wall of bureaucracy, if you like, and I don’t know how to scale it… And I feel frankly scared about the future”.

The immediate future for the Orchard family rests on a decision by the Crown Prosecution Service on whether to bring prosecutions. The Health and Safety Executive could also pursue a formal investigation. An inquest will follow.

The effect of such lengthy inquiries on a family still struggling to cope with their loss is clear.

Mr Orchard’s father Ken said: “We waited seven months before we could bury Thomas’s body and that gave us a small degree of closure. But still with this ongoing inquiry, which they’re telling us now will last in total about five years before it closes. So five years before we can put this to rest. And it’s agony for the family. It’s absolutely agony. And the system doesn’t help our grief.”