WHEN the Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf, announced that there would be a full public inquiry into the death of Sheku Bayoh he said ‘‘it must address the question of whether or not Mr Bayoh’s race played a part in how the incident was approached and dealt with by the police’’.

Furthermore, the membership of the Inquiry will have the “necessary diversity of expertise and background”. Humza Yousaf has made a stand against racism and we welcome that.

Was the fact that Sheku was Black and a Muslim significant? If so, then racism did have a part to play. The disgraceful tweets that followed the Lord Advocate’s decision not to prosecute from Calum Steel, general secretary of the Scottish Police Federation reinforced the impression that the police consider themselves to be above the law.

Steel’s tweets demonstrated that the racism that justified slavery and colonisation may have changed its clothes but it still exists, albeit in a different guise, to criminalise black people and deny them justice, and that, crucially, racism exists within the police. How could this happen in a Scotland that supposedly welcomes everyone?

The police have used brutal force to contain public protest, historically during the 1984-5 miners strikes, during the poll tax demonstrations and in 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 the police’s authority by families and activists involved in deaths in police custody campaigns are contained.

The racism of the police ranges from the disproportionate stop and search statistics of black and other racialised groups, to evidence that the police spied on the family of Stephen Lawrence when they failed to investigate his death effectively.

In Scotland it took 18 years of constant pressure from lawyer Aamer Anwar, as well as a change in the law, to prosecute the killers of Surjit Singh Chokkar. The Police Investigations and Review Commisioner revealed that Scottish police collected and retained intelligence information on Aamer Anwar.

We don’t know how many deaths in police custody there have been in Scotland and we don’t know how many of them are black, because Police Scotland doesn’t keep those figures. That is problematic and there needs to be transparency.

The Institute of Race Relations found there have been 137 deaths in police custody in England and Wales, in suspicious circumstances between 1991 and 2014. The number of black people killed is proportionate to the population but more force is used on them. We saw that was the case with Sheku Bayoh.

Inquest, a charity which campaigns on deaths after police contact confirm no police officer has been convicted since 1990, when they started monitoring. Deborah Coles the director of Inquest has said that it will soon start working in Scotland.

When the police are accused of killing, the whole system closes in to protect them and block victims’ families from getting justice. This is containment at an institutional level.

Sheku’s sister Kadi told me after his death that police officers met family members separately and told them different versions of how Sheku died, which naturally made them suspicious. They were told Sheku had been found by a member of the public. That he had a machete, which was downgraded to a knife, then a blade – all in one conversation, though none was on him when arrested.

The press ran several stories which can be described as racist, often from police sources; police suspected Sheku was a terrorist because Sheku had been brought up Muslim. The police asked Sheku’s partner if they ate pork and bacon, no doubt to establish if 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, “Sheku 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’ Sheku had over 50 injuries in total.

‘‘The police post mortem found no conclusive cause of death, common in deaths in police custody. When so many non-lethal weapons are used it is not possible to identify which caused the fatal blow. The family’s pathologist concluded Sheku died of ‘positional asphyxiation’ caused by extreme force, 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.

The police officers who arrested Sheku were allowed to go back to the station and sit in a room together giving them an opportunity to confer. That 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, and it was 32 days after Sheku died before they did so. 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.

As the Pirc investigation was about to start, the then head of Police Scotland, Stephen House met the police officers involved, although he didn’t bother meeting Sheku’s family. Kenny McAskill, the former Justice Secretary and 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 – months before the investigation had concluded. He described case as an example of "open season of hunting Police Scotland" thus dismissing the family’s legitimate right to an investigation.

The Pirc investigation was not fit for purpose. More than 70% of its investigators are former police officers.The two officers investigating Sheku’s death had over 35 years of service at a senior level in the police. The Pirc investigation on which the Lord Advocate based his decision not to prosecute the police officers was far from independent.

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 from whom they have sought services, whilst the police and judiciary have had access to public funds to safeguard their reputation and authority.

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 should 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 McPherson Inquiry report following the killing of Black teenager Stephen Lawrence in 1974, which concluded that the police were institutionally racist.

At that time Scottish police said that the McPherson Inquiry had not taken place in Scotland and that the police weren’t racist. The Sheku Bayoh public inquiry may conclude otherwise. A word of caution is required however. For the public inquiry to produce meaningful results it must have clear and sufficiently wide terms of reference and must include the Pirc investigation structure and processes and its membership must include those with a thorough knowledge of racism.

Smina Akhtar, School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Glasgow