Timoney Discusses New Job Training Bahraini Police

Jan 18, 2012
Originally published on January 18, 2012 6:27 pm
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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Robert Siegel. John Timoney spent nearly three decades with the New York City Police Department before becoming police chief in Philadelphia and then in Miami. He won praise for fighting crime and for curbing police shootings of civilians. He was also criticized for the way he handled a 2003 protest in Miami, but Timoney's latest assignment may be his greatest challenge yet. He has been hired to train police in Bahrain, a Persian Gulf kingdom of just over a million people.

CORNISH: A challenge because after Arab Spring revolts in Tunisia and Egypt, Bahrain crushed similar uprisings earlier last year. About three dozen people were reported killed. Perhaps to avoid unfavorable comparisons to the brutal ongoing crackdown in Syria, the Bahraini government is now trying to play good cop. It commissioned an outside report to investigate its handling of the protests and insists it is committed to sweeping reform.

SIEGEL: The job of reforming the police will fall, at least in part, to John Timoney. He joined us earlier today from Bahrain and I asked if it's even possible to have respectful policing that minds the rights of the people in a country where the government is not accountable constitutionally to the people.

JOHN TIMONEY: Well, that remains to be seen. I know there are some efforts – and I'm not involved in the politics - but clearly, there are some efforts towards political reform. There were recommendations made even by the king, but in the Bassiouni Report, there were also recommendations made regarding parliament, parliament getting more power.

I know that the king, last week at a press conference, had a speech regarding parliament getting additional power. In any event, my focus really is on the policing end of the business and what happened here just in the last three weeks, a new chief has taken over and is looking to do the right thing, looking to embrace reform.

And so I think there are good vibes here. There are people with good intentions and so we'll have to see where it takes us all, but at least there's definitely a willingness as best as I can tell. And I'm not shilling for the administration here.

SIEGEL: But the question that I'm curious about is can a professional, respectful, restrained policing, is that something that can be implemented in any situation, regardless of what the relationship between the citizens and the authority is? Or does it require, ultimately, some kind of accountability?

Say, (unintelligible) when there were accusations of abuse during the 2003 free trade protests, a civilian investigative panel was called in, it reported, it made recommendations. I read them. You came away with passing grades, but there were remarks about - police should know their rights. They should assist in the first amendment rights of the demonstrators. What if those rights don't exist?

TIMONEY: Yeah. By the way, that's an excellent point. You know, one of the things I've been working on for the last two or three weeks is not just the new policies going forward, but we've created a new police code of conduct. So now the question becomes, can you institute an accountability system? And one of the recommendations is to create the equivalent of an IG or an ombudsman similar to the internal affairs, for example, in the NYPD or Miami or Philadelphia here to take it a step further and bring it outside the police department itself and make it completely independent as an outside body. And so that's another recommendation that's being worked on.

SIEGEL: Is it acknowledged in Bahrain that people do have the right to have a protest?

TIMONEY: Well, there's a couple of issues here. On a daily basis, they absolutely have the right to protest, to demonstrate. Here's where the problem comes in. It's a small city. It reminds me more of lower Manhattan than the rest of Manhattan, where you've got these narrow streets.

And, clearly, if you have unauthorized protests that are happening during the daytime, I mean, the traffic comes to a standstill. But you know, when you saw Occupy Wall Street, when people begin to engage in unauthorized marches that begin to cripple traffic and emergency vehicles, the rest of the city - you know, there's a reason why you have to go to the police department. It's not that they say, yea or nay regarding your right to speech, but can this be handled that it doesn't dramatically and drastically impact the rest of society?

SIEGEL: But an American police force confronted with protesters who would be blocking traffic would obviously attempt to remove protesters from that position, ask them to disperse and not come at them with clubs, let's say. Are you finding that there's a need for training in the degree of force that should be used against protesters?

TIMONEY: Absolutely. Clearly, there was - going back last February, March, there was a lot of ugliness. Thirty-five people wound up dead. By the way, four of those were police officers. One was a soldier. There were about four or five ex-pats that were attacked by crowds.

The protests that I have seen since I have been here, the police, you know, make sure they give proper notice, try and keep distance between themselves and the crowd. These are one of the many things we're going to work on, but there's no disagreement on the part of the people at the top of what needs to be done, how to get done.

SIEGEL: You know, I was struck by a recommendation from the civilian investigative panel that looked into the Miami police under your command, how they handled the 2003 protests and they said - I'm quoting now. They said, additionally, the overwhelming presence of police dressed in riot gear intimidated demonstrators and deterred them from exercising their first amendment rights.

The idea was that to wear riot gear is a form - it's not a kinetic restraint, but it's a form of restraint to protest. Can you apply an idea like that in Bahrain?

TIMONEY: Well, I'll give you my ideal because my rule regarding the Miami Police Department - my rule of engagement is that the officers wear soft clothes and then, if there's going to be trouble, if they're attacked, then they put on the so-called riot gear. That's exactly what happened in Miami.

SIEGEL: Let me ask you about another difference between what you've done in the past and what you're doing now - at least, it would seem to be a difference. At worst, if things had really gone badly in Miami or if, you know, years before you went to Philadelphia when you were still in New York, the police force famously dropped a bomb on a house in Philadelphia. I mean, the worst that happens is there is political discord in the city and tourism goes away for a year. The stakes in a kingdom of a million could be the stability of the regime. That could be what's at stake when there's a huge protest out in the streets. Does it make it different as to what police do in that instance?

TIMONEY: Oh, I think so. You know, I've spoken - and including to the king - and there's clearly an awareness, if you will, an attitude to get this thing right. Bahrain is - it's a beautiful place and I think the events of last February and March really kind of shocked the kingdom itself, the people that run it, the legislature. I don't think they've experienced that type of tumult in the past.

SIEGEL: This has been a major shock to them.

TIMONEY: Without a doubt.

SIEGEL: Well, John Timoney, thanks a lot for talking with us and...

TIMONEY: Robert, thank you very much.

SIEGEL: Thanks for talking with us about what you're doing in Bahrain.

TIMONEY: Thank you.

SIEGEL: John Timoney, long time New York City police officer, later became chief of police in Philadelphia and in Miami, is now advising the police in Bahrain and helping to train them.


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