The public inquiry into the death of a promising young man, Sheku Bayoh, needs to look at how the emergency services deal with people who are under the influence of drugs, writes Tom Wood.
The announcement of a public inquiry into the 2015 death of Sheku Bayoh comes as no surprise. Observers of the political choreography and the feting of the Bayoh family have seen it coming.
And it could go a number of ways. It could disappear into the longest of long grass, drag on for years and cost a fortune – like the Edinburgh Tram Inquiry.
It could descend into a forum for grandstanding and generalised smears in the hope that if enough ordure is thrown some will stick.
Or the inquiry into the tragic death of this young man could provide a valuable opportunity for balanced reflection on how we face a new and growing problem – how our emergency services deal with the increasing number of people suffering severe mental disturbance or drug-induced psychosis, sometimes attended by aggression or violence.
Across the country our frontline services, police, ambulance and accident & emergency staff are having to deal with incidents of extreme violence almost unknown a few years ago.
Anyone who has not witnessed a psychotic rage cannot really grasp the intensity of violence or the difficulty in dealing with it.
And deal with it our frontline services must, they cannot close the door and draw the curtains – they must run towards danger when all their instincts tell then to run away.
Train as you might, nothing can prepare you for the explosive nature of such incidents, all your ‘restraint techniques’ are forgotten as you hang on for dear life.
After only minutes you feel your strength begin to fail, no matter how strong and fit you are. And as the adrenalin surge falls away, doubts begin to assail you.
This person is stronger than you, you are losing, your muscles are screaming and seconds seem like hours as you struggle to get control and reach whatever protective equipment you have.
When is help coming, where are the specialists equipped and trained to deal with these incidents? The answer to that one can be simple – too far away to be of any use to you.
There are no winners – those who have suffered the episode often have no recollection of what took place, only unexplained and often serious injuries.
And for the emergency service workers, the shock and the bruises combine with the fear that they will be judged in hindsight, often by people with no appreciation of the reality.
The relationship between us the public and our emergency services rests on a fine balance of mutual trust. We must trust them to carry out their duties with integrity and they must trust us to treat them fairly.
This inquiry will be a test of that trust and that relationship.
Public inquiries in Scotland have a mixed record. Some like the ‘Piper Alpha’ inquiry have produced valuable templates for the future.
So let’s hope the inquiry into the death of Sheku Bayoh is carried out speedily and in good faith. Let’s hope we can learn lessons so that at least some good can come from the tragic death of a promising young man.
Tom Wood is a writer and former Deputy Chief Constable.