The Police Reform Bahrain Needs
Jan 11, 2012

John Timoney seems like a curious choice to advise security forces in the tiny but strategically important Middle Eastern country of Bahrain. An international commission has just criticized Bahrain’s security forces for excessive use of force and widespread arbitrary arrests in suppressing largely peaceful “”Arab spring”” demonstrations there.

Timoney, the former Miami and Philadelphia police chief, has won accolades for fighting crime and curbing police shootings of civilians. But his handling of street demonstrations protesting the Free Trade Area of the Americas summit in 2003 brought lawsuits by the American Civil Liberties Union over the same issues of excessive force and unlawful arrests.

Bahrain reportedly recruited Timoney to oversee police training. Without question, Bahraini security forces could benefit from professional training. But it’s not clear how one more Western cop can deliver meaningful reform through training when efforts by British and French police trainers have made no difference, to judge by what the world saw in Bahrain in February and March, and still can see today. Bahrain’s policing problems go much deeper than training, and if Timoney hopes to make a positive difference there, here’s what is really needed:

First, end the exclusion of Bahraini Shia, two-thirds of the population, from the security forces. The Sunni ruling family controls political power and a good chunk of the economy. Security posts are largely staffed by Sunnis with Shia excluded from all but menial jobs and unarmed “”community police”” positions. And many of the Interior Ministry’s front-line forces are recruited from Sunni communities in countries outside Bahrain. Many, in fact, are from places like the Baluchistan area of Pakistan, and don’t even speak Arabic.

The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry called on Bahrain to “”establish urgently, and implement vigorously, a programme for the integration into security forces of personnel from all the communities in Bahrain.”” Chief Timoney should insist that this start now.

Second, establish clear rules of engagement to prevent the unlawful use of supposedly non-lethal crowd control devices. A baton can be a deadly weapon if used to beat someone senseless. Guns that fire tear-gas canisters and shotguns that disperse hundreds of pellets at a time -standard equipment for Bahraini security forces – also can kill. Most of the 40-plus people who lost their lives in the unrest this year were unarmed protesters or bystanders. Some were hit by live ammunition, in suspicious circumstances. But many more died from injuries sustained when police fired shotgun pellets or tear gas canisters at their heads or upper bodies at close range. Used that way, these “”crowd control”” devices are deadly weapons. Chief Timoney should insist on clear and transparent rules governing their use that comply with international policing standards.

Third, hold security officers – of whatever rank – accountable for the unlawful use of force and the widespread torture that accompanied many interrogations. The independent commission concluded that the absence of security force accountability led to a “”culture of impunity.”” On the day the commission report was released, Cherif Bassiouni, who headed the effort, said that “”the top six senior people in the Ministry of Interior should be investigated.”” As long as that culture of impunity persists, the best police training in the world will be a waste of time and money.

Chief Timoney should insist that the Interior Ministry – his host – authorize independent and transparent investigations into all deaths caused by the security forces in the unrest. Even better, he should not set foot in Bahrain until senior commanders are put on disciplinary leave pending investigation into their role in the excessive and improper use of force, arbitrary arrests, and torture.