Sheku Bayoh case shows that PIRC needs an overhaul

SACC Press Release
Wednesday 3 June 2015

The investigation into the death of Sheku Bayoh by the Police Investigations Review Commissioner (PIRC) has become a fiasco. PIRC evidently lacks either the resources or the will to do its job, which is to investigate the most serious incidents involving the police. There must now be a re-think of the way that these incidents are dealt with in Scotland.

Sheku Bayoh died while in police custody in Kirkcaldy on 3 May. According to lawyers representing the officers who detained him, it has taken until today for arrangements to be made for the officers to be interviewed by PIRC.

The long delay means that their memories are no longer fresh and they have had extensive opportunities to confer. It is presumably also the reason why Crown pathologists and independent pathologists have not received the information on Sheku Bayoh's detention, arrest and restraint that they say they need to help them in determining the cause of death. Sheku Bayoh's body will be released this week, in readiness for his funeral on 7 June, without these details having been provided. 

We hope that public outrage will cause PIRC to improve its handling of this case. But the investigation has already been badly damaged.

SACC Chair Richard Haley said:

"Anyone who may have to face criminal charges should have the right to silence. But if a member of the public were involved in an incident that led to a violent death, they would have to exercise that right by repeatedly saying 'no comment' across the desk of a police interview room, and they would probably come under a lot of pressure to be more forthcoming.

Beside their individual rights, police officers have a duty to the public. It is unacceptable that a serving police officer should be able to withhold cooperation from an official investigation.

In this case, it appears that police officers didn't refuse to cooperate, but instead reached an agreement with PIRC that resulted in a delay before they gave their evidence. PIRC must therefore carry a heavy share of the blame.

It also appears that the delay may have been at least partly caused by the time taken by PIRC to clarify the basis on which the officers' statements were to be given. That ought to be a standard procedure. It ought not to be necessary to work it out after an incident has occurred."

According to the PIRC website:

"PIRC investigators have the powers and privileges of a constable when investigating on behalf of the Commissioner. This includes powers to detain, arrest, question, report for prosecution, seize productions, including firearms, drugs and any other materials or documents.

Investigators, acting on behalf of the Commissioner, can enter any premises used by the Scottish Police Authority or Police Scotland, search and seize anything found therein, require any relevant documents.

Investigators can require the co-operation of any member of Police Scotland or Scottish Police Authority's staff."

It appears that despite having police-like powers, PIRC lacks either the resources, the experience or the will to investigate a violent death involving the police in the way that police would investigate a violent death involving members of the public.

The police officers who detained Sheku Bayoh should now be suspended without prejudice, and any notebooks or other materials still in their possession should be handed over to PIRC. This means shutting the stable door after a number of horses have bolted, but it would go some way towards restoring confidence in the investigation.

PIRC's findings will sooner or later presumably be put before a court, either in the course of a criminal trial or in the course of a fatal accident inquiry. The flaws in the PIRC investigation are already so serious that we fear that this will be just the first step on a long road to justice. But PIRC is still the only show in town. We therefore urge everyone to maintain the pressure on PIRC to do its job, while avoiding speculation that could prejudice eventual proceedings.

The criticism directed against Aamer Anwar, solicitor for the Bayoh family, by both the Scottish Police Federation and the solicitor representing the police officers involved in the case is unacceptable. Aamer Anwar is doing his job. PIRC is not doing its job.

There must be a review of PIRC's handling of this case, and its performance more generally. The review must give consideration to the possibility that institutional racism has played a part in PIRC's conduct in this case.