A detective said it was “blindingly obvious” after Sheku Bayoh’s death that “race was the main factor” in the police response, an inquiry has heard.
Father-of-two Mr Bayoh, 31, died after he was restrained on the ground by six police officers in Kirkcaldy, Fife, on May 3, 2015 and the inquiry is investigating the circumstances of his death and whether race was a factor.
At the inquiry on Friday, retired detective chief superintendent Lesley Boal was asked about a “race hypothesis”.
She was line manager for senior investigating officer Pat Campbell, but said she did not ask him if it was a strategy because she believed it was “blindingly obvious”, the inquiry heard.
Mr Bayoh died in hospital at 9am, according to a statement given to his family.
Ms Boal said the officers involved were treated as witnesses by both Police Scotland and the Police Investigations and Review Commissioner (Pirc) rather than suspects.
She said there were “tumbleweed moments” at a meeting with lead investigators Pirc at 11.30am, and her suggestions were met with silence.
Ms Boal said she wanted statements to be taken from officers, but none were given due to legal advice from the Police Federation.
She said family liaison officers (FLOs) were crucial but at 1.30pm she pressed for officers to deliver the death message as “every Tom, Dick and Harry knows except the family”, and she was worried about the delay.
But she said she was unaware of a decision to withhold information about police involvement.
Ms Boal said: “Did I sit down and ask Pat that one of these hypotheses was that the officers’ actions were racially motivated? I didn’t. I thought it was blindingly obvious to everybody. Why were we all there if this wasn’t one of the key factors?
“A man had died in police custody and he was a black man. This was the major issue here.
“From what had happened in other parts of UK, from previous incidents, it was so serious. Of course it was a critical incident.
“A black male had died following restraint by police officers. Of course race was the main factor in terms of how the officers had dealt with it.”
She said the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service or Pirc would decide on the “status” of officers, and Police Scotland was there to give “support”.
Ms Boal said: “There had been a discussion about officers’ status beforehand, I was very clear in my head they were significant witnesses.
“We had no evidence a crime had been committed. There was agreement across the board at that.
“Around 12.15-ish I’d gone down to an office or the conference room, Pat Campbell came in, something must have happened and I don’t know what.
“He made the comment: ‘Apparently we can’t take statements off the officers.’
“My position was ‘of course we can, they’re witnesses’.
“There was no reason why we couldn’t ask for officers to provide statements.”
However the officers refused to do so, the inquiry heard, as advised by the Federation which represents rank-and-file officers.
Ms Boal said she felt it might have been “beneficial” for Pirc to make it clear the officers’ status was as witnesses.
She also said that at a 1.30pm briefing, it became clear to her that Pirc FLOs were not going to visit the family that day.
She told the inquiry: “I said to Pat ‘I think we should get officers to pass the death message’.
“Every Tom, Dick and Harry has been told about this apart from the family. We can’t wait another two hours for FLOs.
“There was an agreement officers would give the death message.”
However the initial message did not inform the family of police contact.
Ms Boal said: “I have no idea who instructed officers not to disclose some information as to the context of Mr Bayoh’s death.”
When asked if it was “damaging” to the relationship, she said: “Yes.”
The inquiry also heard a statement from a Police Federation rep who said he was “pretty sure” two officers told him “we’ve just killed someone” immediately after Mr Bayoh’s death.
However the inquiry heard this was not enough to be considered potentially criminal.
Ms Boal said this would not be enough to change the status of an officer from witness to suspect because the use of force could be “legitimate”.
She also criticised a decision to release information about the death to officers before Mr Bayoh’s family.
Ms Boal said: “The time delay was not as it should be in terms of making contact with the family. When there is a death in police custody involving police officers, it’s always going to be really difficult to pass that death message because of the circumstances.
“There was probably three layers of trauma for Mr Bayoh’s family.”
She expressed concern that “in terms of trust and confidence in the police, there seems to be less trust and confidence from black and other ethnic minority groups”.
The inquiry, before Lord Bracadale, continues.