20 January 2021

My brother is not alive today because of the colour of his skin.

- Kadi Johnson, Sheku Bayoh’s sister

On 18 January the BBC aired a Panorama special titled I Can’t Breathe: Black and Dead in Custody. This episode focused on the deaths of Black people in police custody across the UK. It looked in detail at the experiences and deaths of Kevin Clarke and Sheku Bayoh, as well as new evidence in the cases, and the challenges both families have faced in seeking justice.

INQUEST works with both the families and contributed to the powerful documentary, which contains harrowing scenes with footage from CCTV and police body cameras.

In the UK, if you are racialised as Black you are more than twice as likely to die in police custody or contact than a White person. The latest Home Office statistics for England and Wales show Black people are five times more likely to have force used on them by police.

The documentary explores this disproportionality and the racist perceptions which underpin it. Leslie Thomas QC told the programme, “Officers fear what they see. What do they see? Big, black, man: fear.”

Tellecia Strachan, Kevin Clarke's sister, PanoramaKevin Clarke, 35, died in South London in 2018 following restraint by up to nine Metropolitan Police officers whilst experiencing a mental health crisis. At the inquest into his death in October 2020 the jury found system-wide failures by the ambulance, mental health, and police services and assisted living provider possibly or probably contributed to his death. His sister Tellecia Strachan told Panorama, "If they hadn’t used excessive force he would still be here today. Treat him like a human being and not just a 'big scary black man’.”

The programme also looked at the death of Sheku Bayoh, who died aged 31 following restraint by five police officers in Fife in May 2015. This case remains Scotland’s most high-profile death in custody.

Speaking publicly for the first time, an eye witness to the incident told Panorama a version of events that contradicts initial claims from the police officers and Scottish Police Federation that Sheku carried out a ‘stamping attack’ on a female officer before he was restrained. According to the witness this “didn’t happen”.   

Aamer Anwar the lawyer representing the family told Panorama that it took 11 days for officers to make any statements after Sheku’s death yet these were not to investigators, but through the Scottish Police Federation to the media. They shared detailed accounts of this alleged attack.

It was 32 days before officers gave statements to Scotland’s Police Investigations & Review Commissioner (PIRC) who investigate deaths. The family, especially with this evidence uncovered by Panorama, remain concerned about these contradictory accounts. There is an ongoing public inquiry into the circumstances of Sheku’s death, with the examination of any race based perceptions from officers involved as a key part of the Terms of Reference.

Deborah Coles, INQUEST Director, PanoramaDeborah Coles told the programme, “In both cases there have been attempts to justify what happened by virtue of the extraordinary strength and dangerousness of the two men concerned. That to me speaks about how racial stereotyping which equates black men with dangerousness and violence has seeped into police culture and practice."

INQUEST has a long history of challenging racism in policing, working with bereaved families on almost 100 cases involving the deaths of Black men in police custody in the last 40 years.  We hope the documentary will bring further public scrutiny to the repeated failure by successive governments, police forces, and investigation bodies to take real and sustainable action.

Watch BBC Panorama