Deadly Racism in our Justice System

On May 3 2015, Sheku Bayoh died in police custody. Three-and-a-half years later, his family and friends learned that none of the nine officers involved in his death will face prosecution.

Sheku Ahmed Tejan Bayoh, was a 31 year old Sierra Leonean man who worked for British Gas and had two young children. After being arrested by police in Kirkcaldy, Fife, Mr Bayoh had been detained, handcuffed, pepper-sprayed, and put in leg restraints following an alleged altercation with a police officer. At a meeting held earlier this week at Edinburgh’s Crown Office between Bayoh’s sisters; Kadijatu Johnson and Adama Jalloh, Aamer Anwar, the family’s lawyer, and James Wolffe, the Lord Advocate, it was announced that Scotland’s chief prosecutor will not be pressing charges against any of the white officers involved in the event.

After Wednesday’s unsurprising – the decision had been leaked to the press in preceding weeks – but gut-wrenching disappointment, the Bayoh family are calling for a public inquiry, believing that “an FAI would be another betrayal and would do nothing to bring about real change, accountability and justice.” A public enquiry would offer the opportunity for all evidence regarding the case to be disclosed and it continues the focus on a case that Police Scotland would like to sweep under the carpet. And perhaps, more importantly it keeps hope alive of the possibility of justice. However, many public inquiries are an exercise in whitewashing the sins of the police and other institutions. They are about people, not just procedure, so they reveal all kinds of conflicts in our society over things like government secrecy, deference, and the power of professions. Often families want to know what had happened to their dead relatives and why, whereas the focus of public inquiries are often on the organisational failures which allow people to commit the crime.

Mr Bayoh’s story is part of a pattern in the UK when it comes to Black people and the police state.

Research conducted by INQUEST (a British charity providing specialist advice services to the bereaved and the wider public on contentious deaths and their investigation) found that between 2005 and 2015, a disproportionate number of those who die in, or following, police custody in England and Wales as a consequence of force have been from Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities.

Over the past 24 years, more than 500 BAME individuals have died in suspicious circumstances whilst in state detention. Yet not a single official has been successfully prosecuted, according to a report by the Institute of Race Relations. A large proportion of these deaths involved undue and excessive force, and many more were due to a “culpable lack of care”. Often individuals detained suffered from a mental illness. The majority of the 509 BAME deaths studied since 1991 occurred in prison, with 137 cases in police custody and 24 deaths recorded in immigration detention.

Some of the most high profile Black victims of police brutality, police neglect, and gross misconduct by the police include: David Oluwale (1969), the first known Black person to have died in police custody in the UK; Cherry Groce (1985); Joy Gardner (1993); Stephen Lawrence (1993); Christopher Alder (1998); Roger Sylvester (1999); Azelle Rodney (2005); Frank Ogboru (2006); Sean Rigg (2008); Jimmy Mubenga (2010); David “Smiley Culture” Emmanuel (2011); Mark Duggan (2011); Kingsley Burrell (2011); Anthony Grainger (2012); Julian Cole (2013), who has been left in a vegetative state; and now Sheku Bayoh (2015). In the case of Stephen Lawrence, it took over twenty years of campaigning to bring his killers to justice after the police played a key role in obstructing the course of justice, but still, for the victims and their families, there remains no justice and no peace.

In the UK, a Black person is less likely to be shot dead on the streets (although Mark Duggan was) than in America, but they are still likely to be detained with brute force and left to die at the hands of neglectful officers. The racism in Britain’s justice system is gradual, insidious but deadly nonetheless. Amid recent claims that Scotland has a higher rate of race-related murders compared to the rest of the UK and as Mr Bayoh’s death in the care of Police Scotland demonstrates, Scotland and it’s devolved justice system is not free of the same racism which ultimately kills. We are complacent because we do not think things like this happen here, but they do and they have done for years.

The death of Sheku Bayoh – a Black man – whilst in police custody didn’t happen in Glasgow – where 12% of the population are of Black and minority ethnic – but in the small town of Kirkcaldy, with a population of less than 50,000. Scotland is a small country of small towns and small places, often idealised as a place where everyone knows one another and where doors can be left open. But racism, institutional or otherwise isn’t bound by city walls. Sheku Bayoh would have been hypervisible as a Black man in Kirkcaldy, known to those in the small town, including the police. Sheku would have known what happens to Black people who step out of line. He would have known not to resist.

As I stood for over three hours outside the Crown Office in Edinburgh with fellow supporters, awaiting an outcome which we already knew, there was still hope. Hope that Scotland really was different, that we can and will recognise our failings towards the Other in the past, in the present and work towards a country which is for us all. After all, law and order is a devolved matter.

We are not many here in Scotland and Sheku’s death will affect how Black and people of colour see ourselves and how we are seen. This decision sends a dangerous message, aligning us with other countries and white supremacy ideology, who don’t think Black Lives Matter.

Comments (18)

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  1. Jo says:

    The journalist Kevin McKenna writes about this case in his Observer column today.

    The case has always confused me to be honest. We heard of an altercation involving a female police officer which left her injured but no detail of how this had come to pass. I think I also recall media references to the deceased being off certain medication. (Not certain about the accuracy there.)

    There are other real facts, however, that require explanation. The nine involved were able to spend eight hours together after the incident and a further twenty-eight days before submitting statements about the incident to the investigating body. This on its own is highly questionable.

    A full public inquiry is needed into this case and the sooner the better.

  2. B Wright says:

    The text of an article in the Courier:

    A Fife police officer injured while confronting Sheku Bayoh in Kirkcaldy feared she was going to die, according to her father.

    Nicole Short, 32, was one of the officers who responded to calls from the public reporting a man carrying a knife in the town on May 3, 2015.

    Her dad Thomas, 57, said the family had not been able to give their side of the story while the matter was under investigation.

    The Lord Advocate last week revealed no police officers would be prosecuted over the death of Mr Bayoh, who became unresponsive after he was restrained.

    “We have been forced to stay silent for three years, knowing the truth of what happened that morning yet yet not being able to talk about it because of proceedings,” Mr Short told The Mail on Sunday.

    He added: “She was scared. She thought she was going to die. She turned and started to run but he caught up quickly and she felt his fist suddenly connect with the back of her head.

    “The force of the punch lifted her off the ground and she flew through the air head first, landing on the tarmac.

    “She remembers coming round and being dragged to safety.

    “But while she was unconscious, onlookers say he was stamping on her back.”

    It is unlikely that Miss Short will ever return to front-line policing again after the incident, which left her with facial nerve damage, and also knee and back injuries.

    And Mr Short said his daughter had been psychologically scarred by what happened.

    “She still has nightmares and is a shadow of her former self.

    “She’s gone from being an outgoing girl to living in various states of fear.

    “It’s heartbreaking to watch. All we can do is support her.”

    Following the Lord Advocate’s decision not to prosecute officers, Mr Bayoh’s family said they had been failed by the justice system.

    The family’s lawyer Aamer Anwar said they would accept nothing less than a public inquiry by the Scottish Government into the death of the 31-year-old father of two.

    But Mr Short said the officers involved in the case had been “vilified”.

    He added: “The officers in this case are not allowed to speak out publicly, yet they’ve been unfairly vilified and I think the public will be shocked when they know what actually took place.”

    Mr Anwar said Mr Bayoh had acted out of character and it was now known that he was not carrying a knife when police arrived.

    “Sheku Bayoh was under the influence of drugs but he did not deserve to die,” said the lawyer.

    1. Jo says:

      Thanks for this.

      My memory of reports at the time is a bit vague.

  3. Alison McCue says:

    murdered in police custody, is anyone in any doubt.

    1. Jo says:

      Well, yes, there are many doubts, hence the need for a public inquiry.

      The inquiry would surely reveal what happened from start to finish. We’re in the dark on quite a lot I’d say. There is a post above concerning comments from the injured police officer’s father. That gives quite a lot of detail too all of which would be relevant in an inquiry.

  4. Graham Ennis says:

    I have been waiting for it to happen, under an SNP Government, and it has. Yes. IT HAS. system has rotted
    Inevitable really. After 10 years in Power, the slow acid of the system has rotted the good intentions with which it started.
    It now behaves like previous Scottish Governments. The SNP justice Minister, who is ultimately responsible for the Police, has failed abjectly.
    (Why?) Why was this death not used to do some serious changes in the system. (um, “Because”). That sort of thing does not happen in Scotland. Now its happening under an SNP Government.
    We expected better, of an SNP Government. Instead, we get the standard system response.
    The injuries inflicted on Sheku took a while. It was a brutal, prolonged assault, that took minutes.
    Time for those involved to know what they were doing, and what was happening.
    The Senior Officers of Police Scotland did little or nothing, of course. Some of those involved, are still in their jobs. (why?)
    Nichola has had a private meeting, with the family. But that is as far as it will go.
    No, Nicola, you will not fire the Justice Minister, or the Police authority, (about 90% Unionists).
    Neither will she fire anyone else involved.
    We will hear that “She does not have the power to do that”. (Really?).
    Who does then?. A man has been murdered.
    This is Scotland, not Ireland.
    All we will get is total lack 0f action.
    Just as in the same way, the now comfortable “Grandee’s” of the SNP will ensure a total lack of action, on issues like land Reform.
    (Its not there to do that. Its there to do nothing that will challenge the system. IT IS THE SYSTEM. Now. )
    I am sending Nicola a copy of George Orwell,s Animal Farm. It will help explain to Her exactly what is happening.
    This sort of thing is why, after being significantly active in Nationalist Politics, I stopped. What’s the point, with this sort of thing going on.
    Other friends of mine have done the same.
    I left the SNP a year ago, when I saw this sort of thing emerging.
    The pity, the pity. We had a chance, botched, in the Referendum. Then things like this.
    Comments?

    1. Jo says:

      You asked for comments Graham. If you mean on the SNP performance on Justice then my first example would have to be on Lockerbie and the deeply flawed conviction of Abdel Basset al-Megrahi. This year will be the 30th anniversary of that shocking event yet still the dead at Lockerbie have not had justice.

      In 2007 just after the SNP took office, the Scottish Criminal Case Review Commission found SIX grounds suggesting the conviction may be unsafe and passed the case back to the Appeal Court. For more than two further YEARS the hearing was delayed during which time the man convicted fell ill with cancer. That didn’t speed up the process.

      Many of us out here had been convinced that an SNP government at Holyrood would move heaven and earth to have that verdict revisited thus removing the shameful stain it had left on Scots Law, a stain which one UN observer at the original trial said left the judges involved open to accusations of allowing themselves to engage in the obstruction of justice! Quite an assessment of the Scottish Judicial System!

      We were left disappointed. That appeal should have been heard, not just for Megrahi’s sake but for the dead at Lockerbie and their relatives. People like Jim Swire who has fought for the truth since he lost his daughter Flora at Lockerbie. Instead the Justice Minister, MacAskill, pulled the dirtiest stunt ever. For Megrahi, he proposed Compassionate Release as he was, by now, terminally ill. The terms of CR allow any pending appeal to continue only, in Megrahi’s case, MacAskill’s office told him the appeal must be dropped. The alternative was to die in prison. So MacAskill personally ensured the appeal was buried and, further, went on to declare the original verdict sound! (Presumably the SCCRC were deluded when they raised those six grounds to suggest a potential miscarriage of justice.)

      So, I agree with you Graham. On justice, the SNP have been no better than the others. One could even say that on Lockerbie they’ve been worse by working closely with Westminster to get rid of that troublesome appeal.

      1. Graham Ennis says:

        Jo, Many Thanks.#That touched a raw nerve with me.
        I have to say that I was actually involved in the Lockerbie investigation. I was involved on a political activist basis, as the case had international ramifications. I worked closely with David Ben Arayah who was Dr Swires stalwart supporter. I supported the making and the showing of the Lockerbie film, by contributing my aerospace technical expertise, re the bomb and the crash. The tiny bomb allegedly put on in Germany was not what pulled the plane down. 3ozs of plastic explosives cannot blow about 4 tons of aircraft nose off. It was suit-case sized bomb put on in London. I did explain to Dr Swire the technical analysis, but the poor man was unable to accept it. The whole thing was an American deep-state crime related to the Reagan Presidency and internal USA politics. Think Iran-Contra. The attack wiped out an entire American judicial team of investigators flying back from the Lebanon to report to a Senatorial committee, who would have impeached Reagan. The whole investigation by Farnborough was a fraud. It was done for reasons of state. MacAskill got a very strong letter from Me, telling him exactly what a nasty little shit he was, in my opinion, and why he was talking bollocks. What a tragedy.
        The point is though, even though additional evidence over Lockerbie has emerged, that supports what I have said, you can be utterly certain that Nicola will not allow any kind of re-run that would discredit the Judges involved. But thank you for telling the truth. Regards Graham

  5. Alex M says:

    I have major problems with the scenario here, the “justice” system in Scotland is not devolved. It is separate from that of England because of the Treaty of Union. I do not however find that system faultless. Ever since the miners’ strike, it became clear that the Police Forces in Scotland (not Police Services as they became misleadingly described) were in reality merely enforcers at the beck and call of Westminster Government. I believe that since the instigation of the Scottish Parliament, the police have followed an agenda entirely at odds from the interests of ordinary Scots. See the problem re Bayou and the more recent labelling of “Separtists” as subversive. It is clear that even after nearly 20 years of devolution Police Scotland is not truly Scottish.

  6. SleepingDog says:

    As someone who has encountered police whilst intoxicated in my youth, my impression is that (similar to a well-known study of firefighters) they will tend to size up the likely threat from an individual in short time, and their subsequent behaviour will reflect this initial assessment. In my experience, the police responded to my lack of aggression with professional courtesy. It is difficult to generalize, but if a visible minority feel that they are not going to be treated with professional courtesy (perhaps led by cases like Sheku Bayoh’s), then the tension in such encounters is more likely going to escalate. One of the officers involved was apparently known for espousing racist views. Police training should cover such incidents and it is a failure that a man died. It is not clear (and the article rightly concerns itself with this question) what level of failure would result in the prosecution of a police officer. While it may be difficult to prove (without, say, video and audio) that a single case was affected by prejudice, national statistics will tend to point up any systematic discrimination.

  7. kate macleod says:

    See another comment, above, re: a Courier article on the background.

    If he punched a woman/female police officer in the back of the head sending her flying into the air,with her head and body then impacting into a road surface and if he finally stomped on her back, then he might have killed or permanently disabled her. She apparently said she thought she would die. If true, it is a male violence against women issue as well as a drug related violence and a black deaths in custody one. A woman who was nearly killed by a man has seen all compassion directed at someone who might have killed her and from her point of view must have absolutely needed full restraint to protect her from further injury or death. It is also a sign of dubious humanity that what happened to this woman, that she could have been beaten to death, has not been acknowledged as a wrong until very recently and then not much. The defenders of the deceased don’t seem to care about what happened to her at all . She is just a female police officer, not a human whose safety was of equal status, or a victim of male violence. In certain political perspectives as a police officer she was also the Other, not one of us and thus not one of the humans whose suffering matters.

    Police commonly respond with excessive force to attacks on other police officers. Maybe that was a bigger factor than race in this instance. Humans are rife with empathy only for their own political, work, class, sex and ethnic groupings, or combinations of these. Unfortunately police officers can back any callousness and prejudice they may have with weaponry and courts.

    1. Jo says:

      Kate
      We really need to stop zooming in on personal causes in cases like this. It’s not helpful.

      We have a police officer attacked by a member of the public. Yes, this was a female being attacked by a male but the people who came to her rescue, and possibly saved her life, were her male colleagues. That should be acknowledged too.

      We should also acknowledge that it could just have easily been a male police officer who was attacked. It happens all the time. I’m concerned that you’re making it seem that it’s more serious because this police officer was female. I think many female officers might be concerned about that too given the important role equality plays for them in the police force. Police officers are police officers – we don’t distinguish between male and female any more and the first folk who will agree with that are female police officers.

      Mr Bayou’s sisters do not know, so far, what the truth is. That’s what they’re fighting to find out. The truth, if and when it emerges, may be uncomfortable for them. But I don’t believe their position is that they’re ignoring everything else in this case. They lost their brother in circumstances so far unexplained. It is entirely understandable that they are focused on that.

      All the more reason to back the call for a full public inquiry.

  8. Willie says:

    Not at all sure that I concur with the conclusion drawn that this unfortunate death was a result of police racism against black people and that the Crown Office is likewise biased.

    What happened in London has no bearing in Kirkcaldy. Similarly, a low percentage of black people in Kirkaldy does not mean that a black person is more likely to stand out and as a result be open to racism.

    Any death like this is a tragedy but it does not mean racism simply because the individual was black.

    From all accounts there was an extremely violent attack on a police officer who could have been killed and was left with permanent injury.

    Was she attacked because she was white, or because she was female, or was it because the individual was mentally ill.

    The conflation of the death of Stephen Lawrence and the death of the individual here does not justify the charge of racism.

    Indeed in conflating police racism in England with police racism in Scotland with police racism in the USA, the author of this piece comes across in a less than impartial way.

    But maybe she is right. Maybe she has evidence that all white police are racist, even the policewoman who in this tragic case was punched and stamped upon to her permanent injury.

    Indeed, maybe we are all white supremacists, but somehow, I don’t think so.

    But rather than get into the arguements about black saying it is all white’s fault, the call should be to have a public enquiry into what happened in the particular circumstances of Kircaldy.

    Justice has to be seen to be done.

    1. Jamsie says:

      Willie
      You are spot on the mark with your numerous comments and observations.
      The “facts” need to be clarified and the SNP Justice Minister needs to realise that unless a public enquiry is held people will continue with partial judgement and opinion just like the author has presented here.

      1. Willie says:

        “” Layla-Roxanne Hill (b. 1984 in Kano, Nigeria) lives and works in Glasgow, Scotland. Hill’s work is focussed on digital identity as modern day shapeshifting. Hill utilises multimedia to examine the body as space and the voice of the other. Influenced by Afrofuturism, black feminist thought and the activist, she uses mixed modes of media as narrative changing tools to amplify the Black Scottish voice. “”

        1. JB says:

          Willie, this is an artist’s profile on an international arts festival and hardly representative of the person. I know her grandfather – he’s a white man who has been an snp and independence campaigner for many years – and know they are close. The article highlights some facts we simply don’t feel comfortable with but needs to be heard, I imagine she didn’t find it easy either.

  9. Ivan Carnegie says:

    I agree that the case of Sheku Bayou raises questions about poor training of police in restraint techniques but to use one case to claim institutional racism exists within Police Scotland is a stretch too far particularly as the other deaths of black men used to illustrate the point are all South of the border. By all means press for a public enquiry but do not play the race card without some better evidence.

  10. Ivan says:

    What on earth has your comments got to do with the original article on supposed racism in the Scottish Police force?

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