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John Timoney: A tough cop with a tougher job

Special adviser to Bahrain police talks about life in the troubled island kingdom

  • By Mick O’Reilly, Senior Associate Editor
  • Published: 00:00 June 10, 2012
  • Gulf News

John Timoney
  • Image Credit: Reuters
  • A former Chief of Police in Philadelphia and Miami, John Timoney is now trying to reform Bahrain’s police force.
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Manama: Few go voluntarily behind the high white walls and new razor wire of the Ministry of Interior compound that occupies many city blocks here.

The compound is so large that a minibus picks visitors up at a fortified gatehouse and drives them past car parks filled with rows of large white 4x4s, each vehicle with protective wire grills over windows and front and back lights. Those brought involuntarily here are usually handcuffed and in the rear of one of those 4x4s.

Past the rows of white offices, practise rooms for the police band rooms and beyond a telecommunications centre, the blades of a police helicopter are slowly drooping and whirring to a stop where the aircraft has landed on one of the parade and marching grounds.

In an inner fort behind more walls in the heart of the compound, greying armed guards in green combat fatigues salute crisply as dark German cars with official number plates and stern drivers deliver sterner senior officers.

Those armed guards don’t ask for identification. If you have no business in being here, you won’t be here.

Through two sets of frosted and quietly sliding double doors, non-commissioned officers in white and blue uniforms sit at desks, answer telephones, fetch refreshments for the senior officers.

Upstairs, at the end of a end of a carpeted corridor, two double office doors are permanently open. There, working on a computer screen, beside two small, framed family photographs, sits John Timoney, special advisor on policing to the Bahrain Ministry of Interior.

For 45 years, Timoney has helped police New York, Philadelphia and Miami — though it’s difficult to know whether his career has taken him to such a military-like environment, parade grounds and sets of frosted doors.

His business in being here is to change the culture of policing, turn it from a police force into a police service, move it from a fortress mentality to take back the streets of this troubled island kingdom. He’s been here seven months.

“This,” Timoney says, sitting back in a soft leather armchair, “is more of a legacy of the Brits.”

“The colonial order of the Brits was to keep them under control and do what you have to do to keep them under control,” he says, slapping the armchair’s arm to hammer the point. “Don’t get too involved in the day-to-day lives of people. Not just here, but in Hong Kong, Burma — that’s how the British controlled their empire. Law and order policing ... The experiences here are a colonial one. And a lot of the police forces in the region are like this.”

There was little time for the British in getting to know and understand the community, develop a police service . It was all about being a force to police and to use force to do it.

For 17 months, the kingdom has been torn apart by political and sectarian divides. After six weeks of protests and violence at the site of the Pearl Roundabout — Bahrain’s equivalent of Cairo’s Tahrir Square — and in Shiite villages, 34 people died.

The violence and protests and resulted in the Gulf Cooperation Council members activating the Peninsula Shield security agreement. Troops and police reinforcements were moved in the kingdom to protect vital Bahraini installations, domestic security forces quelled the violence and Pearl Roundabout was demolished.

But all of this happened at a cost — not just to human life but also to the reputation of the kingdom’s police.

During the height of the violence, four police officers and one member of the Bahrain Defence Force died.

“I can understand police officers dying in what I would call the heat of battle,” Timoney says. “But what I cannot accept are the deaths of four civilians at some stage along the arrest continuum — either on the streets, being arrested in their homes, or in detention. The allegations of beatings, torture and alleged rape while people were in detention is most troubling.”

After the worst of the violence, the Bahrain government instigated an independent commission of inquiry, led by Egyptian jurist Mahmoud Sharif Bassiouni, to investigate the events of February and March 2011. His investigation into the violence that polarised Bahrain society was far reaching and brutally honest. But Bassiouni’s report was stingingly critical of Bahrain’s police, security and judicial processes — and the kingdom is determined to change for the better.

And that determination to change is why Timoney and former Scotland Yard counter-terrorism chief John Yates are advising Bahrain on police reform. But Timoney’s reputation is that of being a straight shooter used to difficult policing challenges and for cleaning up messes.

“When any police force comes under the type of scrutiny this one is under, they will generally begin to behave themselves,” he says. “Their actions won’t be as flagrant.”

And it is important to remember that at the height of the crisis in Bahrain, Timoney cautions, there did appear to be a very real threat, internal and external, to the regime.

Before he took over as the Chief of Police in Miami, his force had been involved in at least a dozen police shootings and had to tackle more race riots — all stemming from police shootings — than any other city in America. His methods brought change: better training, better relations with the Hispanic, Cuban and black people, better out-reach, better civil rights records. Better cops on the streets.

“There is no quick fix,” he says. “I said when I came here I wasn’t going to re-invent the wheel.”

But what he is doing is taking the best practices from the troubled places he has been — Northern Ireland, Haiti, Turkey, New York, Iraq, Philadelphia, Israel and Miami — or anywhere else from his network of top policing associates around the globe — and putting them into effect in Bahrain.

“There are certain parallels between here and Northern Ireland,” he says. “At the end of the day there is going to have to be a political settlement for real reform to take place.”

With that, Timoney segues off into a tale about meeting Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams in an IRA safe house in 1997, and Adams saying there could be no negotiations in Northern Ireland until the Royal Ulster Constabulary was disbanded. And then how Timoney as a teenager growing up in America, Birmingham, Alabama had a police force with a egregious record of beatings and civil-rights abuse — yet but that no one was calling for the disbandment of the Birmingham PD. Adams moved on with the talks,tabled the demand for disbandment, and a deal was reached.

“The problem here is there isn’t an outside entity as of yet — say the United States or Senator George Mitchell — coming in to help find an political settlement,” he says. But that’s politics. Timoney is interesting in policing and changing training.

And that’s what’s he’s been focusing on during his seven months in Bahrain.

“They spend far too much time here on public-order policing,” he says, “too much time learning how to march. There isn’t an emphasis on classroom training, academics.”

He says changing culture and what’s expected of police officers takes time. And reforming police departments from the bottom up and the top down also takes time — as does regaining public confidence.

“One of the things I’m looking at is introducing a police ombudsman office to investigate complaints about police behaviour and standards,” he says. “People say it’s taking a long time, and it does. You’re changing a police force into a police service — to serve and protect citizens.”

Timoney says that part of the reasons why the NYPD is “the greatest police force in the world, bar none” is because of rules and regulations and its culture of educating and investing in members — he has earned a bachelor and master’s degrees in American history while on the job — and that makes for better police officers.

He says that critics of the Bahrain force point to its high proportion of non-Bahrainis in its ranks. These include Pakistanis, Syrians and Yemenis.

While there’s a feeling among Shittes that these foreign officers have no place in the local police, Timoney points out that most of the other nationalities are in the special forces.

“Again, this is one of the legacies of the colonial nature of the police force,” he says. “But don’t forget, some of the people are second- or third-generation police officers in the force.”

And that’s also going to take time to fix.

Timoney believes that the western media and human-rights activists are doing a terrible disservice to Bahrain in failing to distinguish between peaceful, lawful protests and the violence that occurs nightly.

“That’s riotous behaviour, illegal and violent conduct and violence which I’ve seen in the press described as reaction to police.” He says by simply looking at the videos posted nightly by rioters, it’s possible to see a “huge escalation” of violence with Molotov cocktails, stone throwing and rioting by protesters. “These are unprovoked attacks on police officers,” he says. “Police officers who are simply going about their daily duties and face Molotov cocktails and now, in the past month, bombings. To include these people as protesters is disingenuous and misleading and the overall coverage by the western press is nothing short of bias in a certain direction.”

Is there such a thing as an acceptable level of violence?

“No,” he says, slapping the armchair again, as he has done throughout the conversation. Another segue, this time back to New York where, in the early 1990s, there were more than 1,200 murders in the city annually and parts of the city were dangerous and threatening, and visitors were afraid to come to the city. The mayor, Rudy Giuliani, made a decision, along with the police commissioner, that there was no acceptable level of crime. Officers began to ticket and prosecute every crime. The city slowly began to change, and the growth in tourism went from 25 million a year to 40 million annually. Zero-tolerance policing work.

“So no, there is no such thing as an acceptable level of violence,” he says. “Any violence is unacceptable.”

For amusement, Timoney watches Press TV from Tehran at night.

“For everything that’s going on around the region and the Middle East at the moment, Press TV spends an inordinate amount of time focused on Bahrain,” he quips. “If it’s not on the screen, it’s mentioned in the scroll underneath.”

Does he golf?

“Not really.”

Cook?

“No.”

At 63, has he plans for retirement?

“No, not really.”

How much longer in Bahrain?

“I’ve signed up for two years.”

Impatient?

“Yes and no. It depends on the results I want.”

What defines success for Timoney in Bahrain?

“Contrary to what you see on Press TV, I have no decision-making powers here. I’m just a technical advisor.”

Has he a reputation for being a ‘hard ass’?

“Not really,” his says. “And contrary to what you read, I have never ordered the use of tear gas. Never. Never used tear gas, ever.”

Never?

“Never.”

Do the police in Bahrain use too much tear gas?

“Well, the problem is, back home [in the States] we have guns...”

Then we’re into another segue about policing — Miami, this time.

He a big, engaging personality, a great story teller, a policeman’s policeman, a street cop who kicked and fought his way up the ladder. He has the wisdom of officers who gave worked the beat and have street smarts that can’t be taught in a classroom on in parade grounds.

Here, in Bahrain, Timoney has his work cut out.

 

 

 

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