Sheku Bayoh: The death of a black man in Scottish police custody

Sheku Bayoh's relatives still searching for answers after black trainee gas engineer died in police custody in Scotland.

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    Kadi Johnson, right, and her husband Ade say the family will keep fighting to discover the truth about Sheku Bayoh's death in police custody [Courtesy: Uzma Mir]
    Kadi Johnson, right, and her husband Ade say the family will keep fighting to discover the truth about Sheku Bayoh's death in police custody [Courtesy: Uzma Mir]

    Glasgow, Scotland - On May 3, 2015, in the small unassuming town of Kirkcaldy on Scotland's east coast, 31-year-old Sheku Bayoh died after an altercation with police officers.

    The trainee gas engineer had left his home in the early morning and walked a short distance. 

    When members of the public reported a black male acting erratically and carrying a knife, the police were dispatched. Two police vans and five police cars were reportedly sent and nine police officers called on the incident. 

    After being restrained by several officers, the father-of-two lost consciousness and died.

    Four years on, Bayoh's sister Kadi Johnson, a healthcare worker, says her family's fight for the truth has left them exhausted and dejected. 

    She also claims that the circumstances surrounding his death have been the subject of "cover-ups" from Scottish police since the day he died. The family allege racism on the part of the police.

    "Words cannot express how we feel and how difficult it has been over the past four years," Johnson told Al Jazeera from her home in Scotland.

    "Because up to now, nothing has been done, and all we see is injustice … So, at this point in time, we are thinking, 'where are we heading?' Will we ever get justice or not? We are heartbroken - we can't grieve properly and we don't know the truth about what happened to our brother."

    Bayoh was originally from Sierra Leone but had lived in Scotland since he was 17. 

    He was under the influence of drugs that day, which were said to have changed his behaviour. He was approached and apprehended by uniformed police officers, some of whom claimed they were reacting to a  "terrorist attack"

    According to reports, his body was covered in injuries, which included a cracked rib and head wounds. A type of haemorrhage in the eyes, another widely reported injury, also suggested positional asphyxia - or suffocation. 

    No knife was found in or around his person - but one was reportedly later found nearby.

    In October last year, the Lord Advocate, the chief legal officer of the Scottish Government and the Crown in Scotland, told the family and the family's lawyer, Aamer Anwar, that no criminal proceedings would be taken against the officers involved. This is currently under review with a decision expected soon.

    But the years of waiting have taken their toll. And while Scotland has done much to project itself as a progressive nation, Anwar and Bayoh's family contend that "institutional racism" is at play.

    "This case contains so many fundamental flaws and stinks of institutional racism as far as the family is concerned," Anwar, a high-profile human rights lawyer from Glasgow, told Al Jazeera.

    "It seems to us that there have been deliberate leaks, smears, innuendos and an attempt to stigmatise and to criminalise Sheku Bayoh in his death on the basis that they know he can't answer back."

    Racist portrayals

    Some alleged attempts to tarnish Bayoh emanated from so-called police sources, said Anwar, while others were from the likes of the Scottish Police Federation, whose then-chairman, Brian Docherty, said shortly after the incident: "A petite female police officer responding to a call of a man brandishing a knife was subject to a violent and unprovoked attack by a large male."

    Anwar said Bayoh was 5ft 10in (1.78 metres) and weighed only 81kg. He contends that the claims have only served to vilify a man who was a popular member of the community.

    One of the officers involved was constable Nicole Short. Her account of the day was recently included in a judicial ruling. She wanted to take early retirement on medical grounds; since the incident, she has been on sick leave with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

    Anwar condemned subsequent Scottish press reports, which included Short's description of Bayoh's "bulging" muscles and "aggressive" look, as playing on racial stereotypes.

    The description left the family "angry and disgusted", he said.

    If he was a white man, [the police] wouldn't have used that excessive force that they used with my brother.

    Kadi Johnson, Sheku Bayoh's sister

    Short, in her account, insisted that her "initial assessment was that a murder was about to take place".

    Alan Paton, another officer involved in the incident, also applied to retire early on medical grounds. 

    He was alleged to have had a violent and racist past. Paton has denied the claims.

    As both Short and Paton are now no longer police officers, the family will today lodge a formal criminal complaint with the Chief Constable of Police Scotland to call for an investigation into whether a crime of perjury was committed in respect to the two officers' accounts.

    Anwar said Bayoh's family do not dispute that police were entitled to act, but say the encounter should not have resulted in his death.

    "If he was a white man, [the police] wouldn't have used that excessive force that they used with my brother," said Johnson, referencing the irritant sprays and batons used on Bayoh.

    "I have worked in the healthcare setting for a long time and we have come across acting police officers dealing with white people who are high on drugs and alcohol. But they take extreme care and give them their own dignity. They didn't show my brother the duty of care… on that first instance when they met him."

    Ade Johnson, Kadi Johnson's husband, said Bayoh's death forced him and his family to move out of Kirkcaldy - the constant reminders of that day became unbearable.

    Before his brother-in-law's death, he had considered Scotland, where he has lived for nearly 20 years, the safest of countries.

    "[Bayoh's ethnicity] is the only thing that is preventing justice," said Ade Johnson, who claimed officers gave his family several different accounts of what happened before it emerged that Bayoh died in police custody. "If Sheku was a white young male, the justice system would be at a different level than the justice system right now."

    The family are already suing Scotland police in a civil action. Today, however, they are waiting for the outcome of the Crown prosecution review; a public inquiry, which lies in the hands of the Scottish government, remains another possibility.

    Al Jazeera put the allegations to Scotland police. Deputy Chief Constable Fiona Taylor said: "Our thoughts remain with Sheku Bayoh's family and friends following his death [four] years ago, and we continue to offer support to anyone affected by this tragic incident."

    She added: "Police Scotland has been committed to cooperating with the [Police Investigations and Review Commissioner] and the Crown Office throughout this process, and whilst this continues, we cannot comment further."

    Al Jazeera also approached the Scottish Police Federation (SPF), the representative body for rank and file officers, for comment. 

    Calum Steele, general secretary of the SPF, said: "The Police Federation looks forward to the judicial process where the actual events surrounding the death of Mr Bayoh will be heard."

    Kadi Johnson is adamant that her family will do what it takes to see justice served. But, for now, she remains reliant on a process in which she has little faith.

    "I just live in hope," she says. "But I don't know what justice will look like because at the time I was expecting it, it didn't happen."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News


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