by Smina Akhtar (School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Glasgow)
The killing of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis last month sparked global demonstrations not only about police brutality in the US but police brutality and structural racism at home. Some people may be surprised to know that there were Black Lives Matter events in different parts of Scotland too. There remains a widespread belief amongst many Scots that racism doesn’t happen here, we call it the myth of Scottish Exceptionalism, but the killing of George Floyd allowed Sheku Bayoh’s family to remind us that deaths in police custody happen in Scotland too.
Sheku Bayoh a 31-year-old Black man was arrested and restrained by nine police officers in Kirkcaldy, a small town on the east coast of Scotland, in the early hours of 3 May 2015, he was pronounced dead when he got to hospital. Sheku was originally from Sierra Leone, but left for London at the age of 4 and joined his sister Kadi in Kirkcaldy when he was 17 because his mother thought he’d be safer in Scotland. He had two children; Isaac was only 3 months old when his father died. In November 2019 the Lord Advocate confirmed that there would be no criminal prosecution of any of the police officers who arrested Sheku; the following day the Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf announced that there would be a full Public Inquiry into Sheku’s death. The terms of reference of the Public Inquiry were announced in May 2020, and stated that it will ‘examine the circumstances leading up to the death of Mr Bayoh… the post incident management process and the subsequent investigation into his death’, ‘it will also establish if Mr Bayoh’s actual or perceived race played a part in events’. This was five years after Sheku died.
Was the fact that Sheku was Black and a Muslim significant? If so, then racism did have a part to play.
Examples of the police using brutal force to contain public protest are not hard to find; examples include the 1984-5 miners strikes, poll tax demonstrations, the killing of anti-racist activist Blair Peach in 1979. The system which investigates severe misconduct within the police exists on a state canvas which is also institutionally racist. This ensures that any challenge to their authority by families and activists involved in deaths in police custody campaigns are contained. The racism of the police has been documented countless times and ranges from the disproportionate stop and search statistics of Black and other racialised groups, to publicly disclosed evidence that the police spied on the family of Stephen Lawrence knowing that they had failed to investigate his death sufficiently. In Scotland, it took the police and judicial system 18 years of constant pressure from the family lawyer, Aamer Anwar as well as a change in the law to prosecute the killers of Surjit Singh Chokkar.
According to Inquest, from 1990 to 2019, there have been 1741 deaths in custody, of them 183 are of Black and minority ethnic people in police custody including shootings and they are more likely to have force used on them whilst being arrested and restrained. They confirm that no police officer has been convicted of a death in police custody since 1969. A BBC analysis found that Black people are twice as likely to die in police custody. When the police are accused of killing, the whole system closes in to protect them and stop victims’ families from getting justice. This is containment at an institutional level.
Sheku’s sister Kadi told me that after Sheku’s death, police officers met family members separately and told them different versions of how Sheku died which naturally made them suspicious. At one point the family were told Sheku had been found by a member of the public. They were told he had a machete, which was downgraded to a knife and then a blade – all in one conversation, though no such item was on him when arrested.
The press ran several stories which can be described as racist, often originating from police sources; police suspected Sheku was a terrorist because they realised Sheku had been brought up Muslim. The police asked Sheku’s partner if they ate pork and bacon at home, no doubt to establish whether he was a practising Muslim, they even asked her if she got on with the rest of the family, because they are Black and she is white. Some newspapers reported that he’d been high on drugs and had fought with his best friend. All in an attempt to present Sheku as violent and justify the amount of force used on him when he was being arrested.
Aamer Anwar wrote in Scottish Left Review that, ‘CS spray, Pava (pepper) spray and batons were used by uniformed police officers on Sheku as he was restrained and brought to the ground by several officers within 42 seconds of their arrival. Some officers stated they believed they were under ‘terrorist attack’. CCTV footage leaked to the BBC revealed that Sheku was also handcuffed and restraints applied to his knees and ankles. Shortly thereafter, he lost consciousness and died. His body was covered with lacerations, bruising and a broken rib’, over 50 injuries in total.
The police post mortem found no conclusive cause of death, common in deaths in police custody because when so many non-lethal weapons are used it is not possible to identify which caused the fatal blow. The report however cited excited delirium, a very much contested condition which is caused by excessive struggle whilst being restrained. The family’s pathologist concluded Sheku died of ‘positional asphyxiation’ which meant he couldn’t breathe, caused by the use of extreme force. Such use of force is more common in Black deaths in police custody, justified by a racist stereotype of the Black man possessing super human strength, which has existed since slavery. This is how Sheku was portrayed by the Scottish Police Federation lawyer Peter Watson when he told the media that ‘a petite female police officer was subjected to a violent and unprovoked attack by a very large man who punched, kicked and stamped on her.’
Sheku was of average height, 5-foot 10 weighing 12 stone 10 pounds. The same ‘petite’ police officer alleged in her submission to the Court of Session for early retirement in 2019, that when she was kicked by Sheku she landed across the road resulting in significant injuries which have prevented her from returning to work since. Aamer Anwar states that ‘no one could kick a person that distance, especially since CCTV footage shows that Sheku was handcuffed and face down on the ground within seconds of police officers arriving on the scene’. It was also revealed that one of the police officers on the scene when Sheku died was reported by his own family to be a violent racist.
There were several instances where we can see how the system closed in to protect the police officers from recrimination. The police officers who arrested and restrained Sheku, in a restrain that led to his death, were allowed to go back to the station and sit in a room together which gave them an opportunity to confer. This would never have happened if they had been treated as suspects. PIRC, the body that investigated Sheku’s death, didn’t have the power to force police officers to give statements; they eventually gave statements 32 days after Sheku died. That would not have happened if a civilian had been suspected of killing Sheku, or if a civilian had been suspected of being responsible for the death of a police officer.
Just as the PIRC investigation was about to start, the then head of Police Scotland, Stephen Hause met the police officers involved, he didn’t bother meeting Sheku’s family. Kenny McAskill, the former Justice Secretary but still an MSP at the time wrote in a police magazine that no criminality would be found in the case, effectively claiming that the police officers were not guilty, this was months before the investigation had concluded. He added that this case was an example of ‘open season of hunting Police Scotland’ thus dismissing the family’s legitimate right to an investigation.
The PIRC investigation structure is far from perfect and according to the family’s lawyer not fit for purpose. Over 70% of its investigators are ex police officers, and the two officers investigating Sheku’s death had over 35 years of service at a senior level in the police. The PIRC investigation which the Lord Advocate has based his decision not to prosecute the police officers was far from an independent investigation.
Sheku’s family have had no public funds to help them find out what really happened to him, they have had to fundraise and rely on the goodwill of their legal team and professionals they have sought services from, whilst the police and judiciary have access to public funds to safeguard their reputation and authority.
Finally, Dame Eilish Angiolini’s interim report of the Public Inquiry into deaths in custody has recommended that there should be no delays in investigations, that police should not be allowed to confer and investigating bodies such as PIRC be more independent of the police. These conditions were not met in PIRC’s investigation which is why Nicola Sturgeon and Humza Yousaf have agreed to have an independent Public Inquiry. Scotland could have its own equivalent of the MacPherson Inquiry report following the killing of Black teenager Stephen Lawrence in 1993, which concluded that the police were institutionally racist. At that time, Scottish police said that McPherson didn’t happen in Scotland and the police weren’t racist. The Sheku Bayoh Public Inquiry may conclude otherwise.