Last week, John Timoney — the former New York Police Department chief who went on to lead the police forces of Philadelphia and Miami — died at the age of sixty-eight.
For a cop who spent decades in the limelight, the obituaries have been glowing.
The New York Times described Timoney as an officer who “had the gall to change minds, one police department at a time.”
Another Times obituary cited his working-class roots and degrees in history and urban planning, celebrating that the police chief “plotted innovative strategies that helped reverse years of skyrocketing crime.”
According to the New Yorker, “John Timoney was a good cop. No small thing in America, in 2016.”
But for critics of militarized policing in the United States, Timoney is best remembered for pioneering the use of overwhelming force against demonstrators.
At the 2000 Republican National Convention in Philadelphia — and again at the Free Trade Area of the Americas summit in Miami — Timoney deployed a suite of crowd suppression methods that came to be known as the “Miami model”: mass arrests followed by mass acquittals; the criminalization of peaceful assembly through the denial of protest permits and banning of everyday objects; the sequestration of “embedded” reporters; the recruitment of “infiltrators” in activist groups; and the unrestrained use of tear gas, rubber bullets, and other “less lethal” weaponry.
But the Bahrain connection is not as surprising, nor as tangential, as it may first appear.
We Came, We Saw, We Clubbed
Timoney was far from the first “expert” brought in to reform the Bahraini police.
The force emerged in the early twentieth century as British imperial officials sought to professionalize — and exert greater control over — the island’s security forces, which had long consisted of private guards employed by the ruling family and prominent merchants.
From the beginning, non-Bahrainis were the core of the force. Colonial officials tried to avoid training local labor in order to cut costs, and many believed that Bahrainis were racially or culturally ill-suited to police work.
Instead, they drew on police forces from across the empire, themselves often comprised of the so-called “martial races” deployed as enforcers from Suez to Singapore.
In the 1930s, professional police forces worked in conjunction with the private security forces of oil companies to protect critical hydrocarbon infrastructure, as well as the Europeans and Americans who ran it.
As Robert Vitalis and others have written, British and American oil companies around the Gulf built segregated enclaves for their “senior” staff, which was nearly always exclusively white.
“Senior staff” had their own swimming pools, hospitals, and neatly arranged suburban neighborhoods with central air conditioning.
As training programs for locals lagged in Bahrain and private corporations began recruiting increasing numbers of skilled workers from outside the island, the police found themselves occupied with growing labor protests that demanded an end to discrimination and a more equitable distribution of resources.
After independence, and particularly after the Iranian Revolution, these tensions were articulated through an increasingly sectarian lens.
The ruling family sought to position itself as a Sunni bastion against Iranian expansionism, and leaned ever more heavily on its powerful Saudi neighbor.
Bahrain’s large Shia’ population, which had long been isolated from the most profitable urban coastal markets, faced increasingly explicit and harsh discrimination.
But even as the purpose of the police shifted throughout the century, foreign advisers remained crucial. Briton Jim Bell headed the force in the 1970s, while Ian Henderson, a former British officer, was accused of torturing detainees for the Bahraini state well into the 1990s.
As the host of the Fifth Fleet, the US naval force standing between Iran and the world’s largest reserves of oil, Bahrain has long been viewed as a strategic asset too important to alienate. No one wanted to reign in the mercenaries.
Enter the “Supercop”
Tensions boiled over in 2011. In response to massive demonstrations, security forces resorted to tactics that were simultaneously routine and diabolical: arbitrarily detaining thousands, torturing dissidents (sometimes to death), even prosecuting medical personnel who treated wounded protesters.
All this, however, created a serious image problem. After pulling out all the stops to crush the uprising, in June the Bahraini government hired a team of internationally known human rights specialists and announced that it would be launching a wide-ranging investigation into the events.
In November, the report — entitled the “Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry” — was released.
Framed as a mea culpa, it was remarkably hard-hitting and direct, documenting systematic abuse and torture in the security forces up to the highest echelons.
But rather than confronting the systemic discrimination, corruption, and arbitrary rule that caused the protests, Bahrain hired additional PR companies from the United States and Britain, spending millions in a sustained campaign to shape a new message.
Bahraini elites depoliticized the rampant human rights abuses, instead framing them as an issue of “development.” The security forces were simply unprepared and overwhelmed; they were not trained properly; they were not sufficiently professionalized.
The tough conclusions of the report were redirected into a call for even more spending on the government’s repressive apparatus, using the discourses of specialization and professionalization that would have been familiar to British officials of the 1930s. Even the solution to the problem was the same: more foreign security experts.
To find them, Bahrain contacted the US Embassy, which became something of a headhunter, connecting Bahraini powerbrokers with veteran American cops.
In a fascinating WikiLeaks document dug up by the blog Bahrain Watch, the embassy highlighted job perks “around $300K USD + housing allowance + vehicle + a couple of paid vacations (to include airline tickets home each year) as minimum starters,” and noted that the search “is seen as a prime engagement opportunity with a non-NATO major ally.”
A tough cop from central casting with a Teflon reputation, Timoney was the perfect man for the job.
In a revealing tweet, the Bahraini interior ministry said that Timoney was selected from a list of “supercops” with “long and proven expertise.”
Eventually, it was announced that the ministry was collecting a group “with expertise in the field” and that Timoney would have his own team reporting directly to the minister.
Rage More Than Anything
It is impossible to know exactly what Timoney did in the ministry.
But two things are clear. First, that Timoney championed the government’s line that the unrest was due to youthful troublemakers who needed to be confronted by a militarized security apparatus.
And second, that the police in Bahrain and Miami function in remarkably similar ways.
When Timoney took the position in Bahrain, a number of media outlets understandably raised questions about his decision. Speaking to NPR, Timoney repeatedly denied that he was playing a political role, but nevertheless said that “there are some efforts towards political reform.” He also claimed to have spoken to the king, reporting, “there’s clearly an awareness, if you will, an attitude to get this thing right.”
Timoney was quick to point out that several police officers were killed in the Bahraini uprising and that “there were about four or five ex-pats that were attacked by crowds.”
By using a term for upper-class noncitizens and framing demonstrators as a threat to their security, Timoney resurrected the fears of segregated Anglo-American oil companies a half-century ago.
Timoney framed his job as technical, to institute a “new police code of conduct” and “an accountability system” and help with “reforms.” Protests were dangerous because they blocked traffic in Bahrain’s “narrow streets,” an argument that the regime quickly adopted itself.
Effectively passing over the history of twentieth-century Bahrain, he framed the protests as a shock, saying, “I don’t think they’ve experienced that type of tumult in the past.” The narrative was complete fiction, but it was exactly what the Bahraini state wanted to hear.
Timoney’s previously stated views on demonstrators seemed remarkably similar to those of the Bahraini regime. Before the 2000 convention, he went on the record to say,
What we have here — it’s become clear to me — are conspirators, and there’s nothing else to call them — people that sit around and conspire to come into city after city, to cause mayhem, to commit violence against police officers and citizens.
This attitude served to depoliticize protests in Bahrain, too.
In a Reuters article entitled “Bahrain serious on reform but youth violence poses obstacle,” Timoney was quoted as saying, “Kids appear on a scene and taunt police officers and fling Molotovs and iron bars, usually in back alleys. It’s hard to dissect a political message coming out of that. It’s rage more than anything.”
To Gulf News, he said,
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.
A Legacy of Violence
Timoney and the Bahraini regime were completely in sync — and not just rhetorically.
In Philadelphia and Miami, Timoney’s police used force and intimidation to prevent protesters from exercising their free speech rights.
When the American Civil Liberties Union sued in the aftermath of the Miami incident, its local president stated that “the ‘Miami Model’ was a police tactic designed to intimidate political demonstrators, silence dissent, and criminalize protest against the government policies.”
Even the City of Miami’s own 2006 report on the protests found that in certain instances, Miami police “did not adequately protect the First Amendment rights of demonstrators.”
In fact, “the overwhelming presence of police dressed in riot gear intimidated demonstrators and deterred them from exercising their First Amendment rights,” while “indiscriminate use of force was utilized against demonstrators.”
The few journalists who ignored instructions to “embed” themselves with the local police tell a similar story. According to one Boston Globe article,
About 40 agencies reportedly sent 2,500 officers in full body armor into the city, flooding downtown Miami with police on foot, on bike, in cars, and on horses, and dominating major intersections.
However, the protests were largely covered by helicopter because of restrictive press laws, which helped the Miami PD frame the protesters as the source of violence, and avoid Timoney’s greatest concern during the Philadelphia convention:
Let me give you the goal, the overall goal, the one goal that I wanted, the paramount goal for the Philadelphia Police Department: Not to be seen on the six o’clock news beating the living daylights out of protesters. That was the number one goal.
Unsurprisingly, Timoney’s “reforms” in Bahrain seem to have been purely cosmetic.
The only victory he seems to have ever specifically mentioned is that cameras have been installed in some police stations. But Bahrain’s security forces have circumvented this restriction by either torturing demonstrators in locations without cameras, or simply ignoring all allegations and proof of abuse.
Instead, Timoney’s greatest impact in both Bahrain and the United States was his work to transform protests from legitimate political acts into irrational expressions of rage that could only be met with professionally militarized police.
The discrimination and state terrorism that triggered collective action were silenced, while activists — who in Bahrain risked mortal danger every time they attended a demonstration — were dismissed as hooligans.
Far from marking a break with the past, Timoney built on a global legacy of policing as the enforcer of white supremacy and imperial hierarchy. In contemporary Bahrain, this form of expertise has been redeployed to prop up a repressive regime and its anti-Shia’ policies.
The glowing obituaries for Timoney in the mainstream press claim he was a rare exception, a “supercop” in a field full of bad apples.
But as we’ve seen from Ferguson to Cairo, from Manama to Miami, Timoney’s legacy of violence and repression is far from exceptional.