On the public inquiry into the death of Sheku Bayoh

Sheku Tehjan Bayoh. His name speaks to rhythm familiar to some, but here in Scotland, not most of us. It takes a little more work for some of us to attune our ears to these vowels and consonants, which are taught here and there. Here, and there, we learn not to question a language of legislation, not to learn the languages of resistance. Some languages, though they are about us, aren’t for us.

Since the public inquiry into the death of Sheku Tehjan Bayoh began on 10 May 2022, I have been following proceedings both online and in person. Sheku Bayoh died following police contact in Kirkcaldy in 2015. The purpose of the inquiry is to examine: the immediate circumstances leading to the death of Mr Bayoh, how the police dealt with the aftermath; the subsequent investigation into his death and whether race was a factor.

Attending the public inquiry in person, I tend to attend as a member of the Scottish Trade Union Congress (STUC) General Council and STUC Black Worker’s Committee. I can do so as I am a member of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ).

Since Sheku’s death in 2015, the STUC and its affiliated trade unions have supported the Justice for Sheku Bayoh campaign. Unions are encouraged to attend the Public Inquiry, support events and donate to the campaign.

Blankets vs Suits (or the community vs the establishment)

A public inquiry offers the opportunity for all evidence regarding the case to be disclosed and it continues the focus on a case with certain aspects that Police Scotland might want to sweep under the carpet. And perhaps, more importantly, it keeps hope alive of the possibility of the whole truth coming out. However, many public inquiries are an exercise in whitewashing the actions of the police and other powerful institutions. Inquiries are about people, not just procedure, revealing all the conflicts in our society, such as government secrecy, deference, and the power of professions. Often families want to know what had happened to their relatives and why, whereas the focus of public inquiries are often on the organisational failures which allow people to exert power.

Attending the inquiry in person, I have the choice to attend as media, a member of the public or with Sheku’s family. To ensure spaces are kept for family, supporters, or the public, I often attend as media. Despite having access to a dedicated room which is made available to the media, I choose to sit with Sheku’s family on a row of seats at the front of the hearing room. The room is filled with people, the Inquiry team, legal representatives, members and representatives of Police Scotland, the Scottish Police Federation and security staff. Some of the legal representatives include familiar faces within the Scottish Establishment.

Retired constable Alan Paton is represented by Brian McConnachie QC, who was recently reported to have sent sexist and misogynistic messages relating to the head of Rape Crisis Scotland. Representing Constable Ashley Tomlinson, Constable Kayleigh Good and Constable Alan Smith is former Labour MSP Gordon Jackson QC. Jackson was recently found guilty of professional misconduct, after he appeared to name two of the women who alleged sexual assaults by Alex Salmond, in contravention of rules that protect the anonymity of complainers. At the time, Gordon Jackson was the lead defence counsel in the trial of Alex Salmond. Representing Chief Constable Garry McEwan and Chief Superintendent Conrad Trickett is Duncan Hamilton QC. Hamilton is a former SNP MSP, and adviser to Alex Salmond. Hamilton’s brother is David Hamilton, who became Chair of the Scottish Police Federation in April 2020. The Federation do not represent the senior officers.

Though it was possible for individuals or organisations who, “have significant interest in an important aspect of the matters which the inquiry relates to’, to participate in the Inquiry as core participants – how this knowledge was made available is unclear.

The Coalition for Racial Equality and Rights (CRER) a Scottish strategic anti-racist organisation is amongst the organisations and institutions who are core participants to the Inquiry, and the only one which has any race related expertise or knowledge. Funded by both the Scottish Government and Glasgow City Council – as well as Glasgow Community Planning Partnership (a strand of Glasgow City Council) and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation – how far CRER can make radical interventions to the inquiry, or indeed in their aims to “protect, enhance and promote the rights of Black/minority ethnic communities across all areas of life in Scotland and to strengthen the social, economic and political capital of Black/minority ethnic communities”, may be dependent on the reliance of such funding.

This may explain in part why there is no Black and Scottish expertise or knowledge, meaning crucial lines of Inquiry which could be explored are not.

The Sheku Bayoh Inquiry is live-streamed via the Inquiry website and YouTube channel. Videos, transcripts and evidence is published on the site as soon as possible after a hearing has ended. People can watch, read and learn about the case without mediation by the media. On the days I watched proceedings online, my heart has been filled with sadness when I’ve seen Kadi – Sheku’s sister – sitting alone, surrounded by, and facing representatives of power.

For people becoming familiar with Sheku Bayoh, their first point would be the press coverage which occurred in the days, months and years following his death. How Sheku’s story was told was not one which was objective. In much the same way the police officers who are involved in the death of Sheku Bayoh have been questioned about their own biases, I do not believe it is possible for journalists to write without bias – we all live different lives.

Journalists are expected to be objective but, this has often not been the case, and when ownership of media and super-injunctions (also known as gagging orders) are thrown into the mix, what should be reported, isn’t and what is told, can be of varying ‘truths’. The National Union of Journalists (NUJ), have a code of conduct which members are expected to adhere to, and they have also developed various reporting guidelines, ranging from race, mental health and death by suicide. However, the NUJ’s Race Reporting Guidelines haven’t been updated since 2016, despite the global outcry following the death of George Floyd in 2020.

Observing Scotland’s media in the summer of 2020 and the months that followed; from the mainstream to independent media, public, private to voluntary and third-sector organisations, across print, television, radio, podcasts, blogs and social media, many of the stories and debates featured Black people, sought out by journalists to speak about racism and their experience of ‘dealing with being different’. Sometimes, Scotland acknowledges its anti-blackness, though the media landscape appears to have returned to pre-2020 times.

A recent Freedom of Information (FOI) revealed 122 deaths in custody, or following contact with officers, in the past seven years — with 35 of those happening since the beginning of 2020. Sixteen of the deaths happened in custody with the rest following contact with officers, which covers a wide range of scenarios. From March 2020, Scotland – like most part of the world – was living under restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic, which prevented people from leaving their homes. During this period, Police Scotland data showed people who had died in police custody or following contact with officers had more than tripled from seven in 2014 to 24 in 2020, the most recent full year available. One of these deaths was Badreddin Abadlla Adam, who was shot dead by police in Glasgow, weeks after Black Lives Matter protests, which had seen thousands of people in attendance. He had stabbed six people – after having been failed by the Home Office.

As Francesca Sobande and I highlight in our recent book, Black Oot Here: Black Lives in Scotland (Bloomsbury 2022), despite the relatively small population of Black people in Scotland, levels of incarceration – particularly within younger age groups – and detention under the Mental Health Act, are disproportionate. Mimicking the disproportionate numbers of Black people within prisons in England and Wales, where, by the end of June 2021, Black people made up 13% of the prison population, despite representing only 3% of the population as a whole. Within Police Scotland, 10 officers are facing disciplinary action for sharing crime scene photos of current investigations and messages which were ‘sexist and degrading, racist, anti-Semitic and mocking of disability. Recently, the Independent Review of Complaints Handling, Investigations and Misconduct Issues in Relation to Policing (2020) found that Black and ethnic minority officers found racism to be more prevalent within the service than in the community.

If this is what is happening at ‘home’, here in Scotland, who knows what is going on in Malawi and Zambia, where Police Scotland’s work on gender-based violence includes (allegedly), ‘improving child protection, supporting governance and protection of vulnerable groups, as part of Scotland’s Contribution to International Development.

As Kadi Johnson said at vigil held outside Capitol House when the inquiry started in May this year, “Sheku should not be remembered as man who died following a struggle with the police. We hope his name does not fade from memory, and that one day the name of Sheku Bayoh will produce a legacy his children will be proud of”.

When we speak about another Scotland being possible, lives, deaths, and violence toward people and those which have experienced harm through or by the state must be challenged and should always be brought to account.

For Sheku Bayoh, Badreddin Abadlla Adam, Allan Marshall, Katie Allan and all the people who have lost their lives to the system which creates these deadly conditions, and the institutions which uphold it.

The public inquiry into the death of Sheku Tehjan Bayoh restarts on the 22nd November 2022 at Capitol House, Edinburgh. A vigil will be held outside Capitol House from 9am. Details are available here: https://linktr.ee/justiceforsheku

Comments (15)

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  1. 221120 says:

    You’re right to focus on language in relation to the task of decolonising the justice system in Scotland.

    Language is used in order to describe the world around us as well as to build and maintain the social relationships that shape that world. In this respect, language is a the basic tool through which power is exercised.

    Those who control the terms and condition of our discourse around incidents like the death of Sheku Bayoh control the distribution of justice in our society. At the same time, constructing contrasting discourses provides a basis for opposition and resistance to the power-relations that currently dominate and define our justice system, society in general, and the very world we inhabit.

    Thus, language offers a means to understand and change the Scotland’s current establishment. It takes a little more work for some of us to attune our ears to the dissonant vowels and consonants of dissensus, but putting in that effort can loosen the hegemony that bourgeois, white, heterosexual, male Scotland exercises over our social, economic, and educational lives. That’s the work of decolonisation.

  2. SleepingDog says:

    Social psychology research in humans suggests that in-group behaviours amongst squad-sized (perhaps 12 to 20 individuals) socialised groups will tend towards the closing of ranks against out-groups, which poses a problem when asking members to account for suspected wrongdoings by group members. Reforms may only have temporary effects. What are the options for cases like the police response to Sheku Bayoh? Perhaps sending mixed teams, if possible (including non-police members with a relevant function)? Integration with health and social work was supposedly part of the new policy.

    If we value our police forces, we should value them for their professional ethics and abilities to perform well under difficult, unexpected and trying circumstances; and such values should be the ones predominantly attractive to successful entrants into the force. And that includes the moral strength to break ranks when required, to stand up to misbehaving officers, defy illegal orders, and call out wrongdoings. How near or far are we from that?

    1. 221121 says:

      ‘If we value our police forces, we should value them for their professional ethics and abilities to perform well under difficult, unexpected and trying circumstances; and such values should be the ones predominantly attractive to successful entrants into the force. And that includes the moral strength to break ranks when required, to stand up to misbehaving officers, defy illegal orders, and call out wrongdoings?’

      Indeed! But, irrespective of what you think ‘should’ be the case, the fact remains that, in their constitution, social institutions like Police Scotland simply replicate the cognitive, evaluative, and practical norms of our society generally, which norms are an ideology of the prevailing relations of production that shape out lives. The decolonisation of policing in Scotland requires a more than just moral exhortation on the part of the righteous for our security workers to be ‘good cops’ or to ‘play the white man’ (as it used to be called); it requires at the very least a greater democratisation of its institution to bring it closer and more responsible to the communities it polices.

      1. SleepingDog says:

        @Lord Parakeet the Cacophonist, no, you are quite mistaken here, that is why social psychology is so interested in small groups. After all, families living in the same street can have very different social norms.

        For example, you don’t have to accept every theoretical framing or detail in Samantha Crompvoets’ short book Blood Lust, Trust and Blame (2021) to see quite different subcultures forming within one organisation itself culturally apart from mass society (Australian Special Forces). And small-group norms and distinctions from out-groups can form around issues quite unimportant to, or invisible to, or uncontentious in, or incomprehensible by, wider society. You might be familiar with Jonathan Swift’s satirical take on Big-Endians and Little-Endians
        and Doctor Seuss’ elegant take in Sneetches on the Beaches; or you could draw on your love of theology for fatuous reasons for vicious conflict.

        You might have used the term “play the white man”, I have not. It has always grated with me, as far as I remember. Perhaps your qualifications to lecture others on decolonisation are as lacking as your understanding of social psychology (which I have formally studied).

        In fact, as recent investigations have revealed, it is in private in-group communication that the (sometimes extreme) differences, between groups of police officers and the wider public they are meant to serve, are revealed.

        And once again you misrepresent my comment, which was not a moral exhortation but a question about how far from an optimal (as I see it) state is Police Scotland, and what ameliorative steps might be taken to improve it. If you disagree with my short sketch of such an optimal state, you had the opportunity to state your divergent views instead of responding with ‘indeed’.

        According to your comments, we cannot do anything directly to fix policing because it inherits its culture directly from wider society, so we (somehow) have to fix society first (which you blame rather than the police, since obviously to you we get the police we deserve); but you suggest doing this is through ‘more democracy’, which surely will only transmit such culture more accurately. Democracy is in essence merely a means-based politics, it says nothing about ‘decolonisation’, which has historically come from the edges, and has been informed by the core ethics from our shared biology. The point is rather to see everyone as equally human, and work from there.

        Fixing the notoriously corrupt Metropolitan Police, heavily infiltrated by organised crime and racists/misogynists etc, is an ongoing process, but not one that society as a whole can achieve merely by thinking good thoughts, it needs special measures.

        I think we should be listening much more to the edges of the British Empire and beyond, and gain insights into how current police cultures came about.

        1. 221021 says:

          I’m not sure what I’m quite mistaken of; you fail to say.

          I’ve no problem with the idea that different subcultures form within the same organisation; all organisations are, after all, organisations of the several different cultures and subcultures that co-exist within them.

          Not do I have a problem with the idea that private in-group communications reveal differences between groups of police officers and the wider public they are meant to serve; I’d be surprised if they didn’t. All social institutions include dissonant groups, and society in its abstract totality contains the same dissonance that exists within its institutions. I’m confident that the groups of racist and/or misogynist officers that exist within Police Scotland will have their counterparts among the wider public generally; whether those groups are over- or under-represented in Police Scotland is a matter for further research.

          I’ve no idea how far from what you’d consider an optimal state Police Scotland is in. I’d consider the state it’s in ‘optimal’ only if it faithfully reflected the plurality of cognitive, evaluative, and practical behaviours that are extant in contemporary Scottish society; that is, only if the officers serving in Police Scotland represented a cross-section of Scotland’s current social attitudes. If it doesn’t faithfully reflect that plurality, then its optimality could be improved by the institution’s greater democratisation.

          But you think I’m mistaken in/disagree with my claim that Police Scotland should be subject to greater democratisation, perhaps? Maybe you think it should be purged of officers of whose cognitive, evaluative, and practical behaviours you and those in society who are similarly minded to yourself disapprove?

        2. 221122 says:

          ‘…we cannot do anything directly to fix policing because it inherits its culture directly from wider society, so we (somehow) have to fix society first (which you blame rather than the police, since obviously to you we get the police we deserve); but you suggest doing this is through ‘more democracy’, which surely will only transmit such culture more accurately.’

          No, we can ‘fix’ policing by making it more responsible to the communities it polices; we can do this by making its governance less authoritarian and more democratic. Democratic governance would ensure that our policing expresses our collective pluralistic culture more accurately rather than just a dominant subset of that culture.

          ‘Democracy is…. merely a means-based politics, it says nothing about “decolonisation”…’

          It is indeed the means by which our public decision-making and its institutions become an expression of the general will and not just the will of the righteous, which is, however, what decolonisation is ultimately about: freeing our embodied minds from the hegemony of the righteous. (Take a look at the liberation theology of Marcus Garvey, Frantz Fanon, and Bob Marley, which provides the argument for this conclusion.)

          ‘The point is rather to see everyone as equally human, and work from there.’

          Indeed, it is. And this is the point from which contract theorists like Habermas and Rawls work in their respective conceptions of the ‘ideal speech situation’ from which a general democratic will can issue from the discourse of our decision-making.

          Anyway, I’m yet to be convinced that ‘listening much more to the edges of the British Empire and beyond, and gain insights into how current police cultures came about’ is a better way of improving our policing than making it more responsible to the communities it polices.

          1. SleepingDog says:

            @Lord Parakeet the Cacophonist, well, a stupidly representative police force would have an open door for organised crime, fascists, racists and misogynists (amongst others), but that’s probably me being too righteous. You don’t seem to understand professional ethics, or role ethics, or any ethics come that. At the very least, taking and breaking an oath to serve the public should be eliminative, and responsive to the public. And how am I not surprised that your ‘decolonising’ stops at your preferred parochial boundaries? I found this article online:

  3. Mr E says:

    I have seen far more outspoken articles in the Daily Record about this man’s murder and other custodial deaths than I have read in Bella Caledonia, or any other radically compliant Scottish website, and I am very pissed-off by that. Before I read this, the coverage on Bella has been non-existant or really shit.

    If all the Scots who are drugged to the eyeballs and acting erratically were killed by Scotsquad there would be carnage.

    Oh, and Black Lives Matter! Except if those lives are in Scotland. A place where this death was very similar to George Floyd’s axphyixiation.

    1. 221122 says:

      How Sheku’s death while in Police Scotland’s custody might be exploited for the cause of independence/given a nationalist spin isn’t immediately obvious, I suppose.

      1. Hi Anonymous Troll – I have to set aside my usual endlessly patient self and say ‘go fuck yourself’. You are commenting here on an important subject which you reduce solely to an attempt to have a go at us, despite the fact that we have covered this issue many times. So you are just factually wrong.

        You and Mr E can either apologise or be removed.

    2. 221122 says:

      Also, the Daily Record’s outspoken coverage of the case might be considered ‘unpatriotic’.

    3. Oh hi Mr Anonymous Troll. Our coverage of the Sheku trial has not been non-existent nor shit. It’s a subject we have covered many times and this week covered it with our regular contributor layla-roxanne hill who has been attending the inquiry for many weeks. I’m not sure what you think gives you the right to come here and smear your shite?

  4. K Anderson says:

    Thoughtful piece from Layla. Nice to see Layla writing fro BC again and will she be doing more? Does she have a book out, I couldn’t see a link in the piece.

    1. Hi – yes she has a book out with co-writer Francesca Sobande, here’s the link:


  5. Steve Davies says:

    I am interested in supporting the Bayoh family at the public enquiry.
    I am now retired from Social Work ,having previously worked in the Scottish Court system . I am a political activist . I have worked with asylum seekers and refugees. I am a member of UNISON.

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