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Scottish Government must recognise that PIRC is not fit for purpose

Press Release by SACC, 30 August 2015.

The investigation by the PIRC (Police Investigations and Review Commissioner) into the death of Sheku Bayoh in police custody demonstrates that the organisation is not fit for purpose and must be reformed. It's time for the Scottish Government to acknowledge the problem and initiate a review of the way that PIRC operates, including the working of the  Police and Fire Reform (Scotland) Act 2012 and any other relevant legislation.

The Sheku Bayoh investigation is the most serious case that the PIRC has dealt with. It has handled it badly.

The PIRC's powers appear on paper to be extensive. But it was unable to secure timely statements from the police officers who detained Sheku Bayoh. Media reports today have revealed that the PIRC has approached controversial US pathologist Dr Steven Karch, a proponent of the view that many deaths in police custody are the result of a bizarre medical condition called "excited delirium".

In 1999 Dr Karch said:

"Whether or not these people [who die in custody] see the police is irrelevant. They could be seeing a seven-headed monster. They're delirious, they get a surge of adrenaline and they die."

"Excited delirium" is not recognised as a medical condition by the World Health Authority. It is hardly ever cited except in cases involving an altercation with police. 

Deborah Coles, of death in custody charity Inquest, said:

"We believe excited delirium is used to try to explain away police custody deaths rather than understand the significant role excessive restraint has played. Dr Karch has advised security and policing systems in the US and the decision to instruct him speaks worryingly about the independence of the PIRC.

The Independent Police Complaints Commission in England have never instructed him and we would be really concerned if they were to do so."

The PIRC has responded to concerns over the involvement of Dr Karch in the Sheku Bayoh case by saying that its investigation is not focussed on a particular cause of death and says that it has "identified a number of expert forensic pathologists to the Crown Office."

Richard Haley, Chair of SACC, said today:

"The PIRC denies that it is pre-judging the case. But it's impossible to understand why it would approach Dr Karch except in response to pressure from the police. It appears to be leaving no stone unturned in trying to provide the police with a way out of their problem.

The Sheku Bayoh case is the most serious case that the PIRC has dealt with. It's a litmus test for the organisation. The PIRC failed to approach the case adequately at the outset, when it proved incapable of securing crucial evidence in a timely fashion. In approaching Dr Kirch, whose speciality is to sidestep the evidence and pursue a medical mystery instead, it is continuing to approach the case in a manner that seems calculated to obfuscate.

I hope that the PIRC investigation will, despite these sidetracks, eventually present the Lord Advocate with evidence that has some real value so that we can find out what happened to Sheku Bayoh. But whatever the outcome of the investigation, the PIRC no longer deserves the confidence of the public. It's time for the Scottish government to recognise that fact and take steps to remedy it."


Notes for Editors

  1. For reports on Dr Karch's involvement in the Sheku Bayoh case, see the Sunday Mail, 30 August 2015, and STV, 30 August 2015.
  2. For Dr Karch's comment that "Whether or not these people see the police is irrelevant" See Salon, 29 September, 1999.