Bahrain's Police Show 'Restraint' On Protesters

Police in Bahrain are accused of using excessive force on anti-government protesters in the days leading up to the Formula 1 Grand Prix. Steve Inskeep talks to John Timoney, a former police chief in Miami and Philadelphia, who now advises the Bahraini police force.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Let's follow up now on the situation in Bahrain. The country managed to stage its annual Grand Prix last weekend, which was, as we've reported, taken as a success for a government under intense pressure from protests. But at least one person was found dead after security forces clashed with demonstrators. This morning we've reached John Timoney. He's one of the best-known cops in America, former chief of Philadelphia and Miami, and now advising Bahrain's ministry of interior.

Mr. Timoney, welcome to the program.

JOHN TIMONEY: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: So what have you learned about this shooting?

TIMONEY: Well, right now it's under investigation. This man was found on a rooftop, under very suspicious circumstances, with allegedly a gunshot wound to the right side, some other injuries. And so the public prosecutor has taken over the case, the investigation, as is standard procedure here. There is an autopsy that was performed yesterday. I'm assuming we'll get the results today on the actual cause of death.

INSKEEP: And let's figure out the broader circumstance here. This is a guy who was described as one of the protestors - these protests that are seen as part of the Arab spring in Bahrain. And police, we're told, put down the demonstrations by firing bird shot. Is that in fact what they do?

TIMONEY: No, you've got to - there are two types of demonstrations. It's pretty important to disaggregate them. The normal peaceful demonstrations, where you get thousands of people, they go on a regular basis without too much problems. But what was going on the other night, and what goes on a lot of nights here, in the villages you'll get small groups of young men that engage in attacks on police forces with Molotov cocktails and other homemade implements.

And it's a regular nightly battle between the police who respond using teargas and, in some cases, bird shot.

INSKEEP: And was it that more violent kind of confrontation that was taking place on Saturday?

TIMONEY: Well, there were numerous confrontations in numerous villages, pretty much all of them violent, all of them involving Molotov cocktails being thrown at the police. And then the police responding, in some cases, with bird shot.

INSKEEP: Is that within bounds as you see it?

TIMONEY: We'll, with the bird shot, I mean you have to understand what bird shot is. This is not buck shot. These are very, very tiny metal - little balls. And they're not aimed at the torso; usually at the lower extremities. Now, could a bird shot be lethal? Sure, if it was up close. So the issue here is they're trying to keep a proper distance between the police and the protesters.

INSKEEP: Now, Mr. Timoney, as you know, the Bahraini security forces have been criticized, fiercely - including by a commission that was setup by the government itself - for abusing protesters, for torturing people. How would you judge their performance in recent weeks?

TIMONEY: Well, I mean I observe them. And anybody who would like to observe them, you could go on YouTube and just bring up, night after night, the violent clashes. And you'll see patrols, sometimes stationary patrols where police officers are in cars, just coming under attacks; not by one or two Molotov cocktails but with hundreds.

And so, it's been a case where I think the restraint is on the part of the police forces, certainly since I've been here - I've been here since mid December - I think the restraint has been extraordinary.

INSKEEP: Mr. Timoney, is this a delicate job for you? Because obviously, you want to improve the performance of cops who've been very sharply criticized in the past year, but at the same time, you wouldn't end up wanting to somehow support or endorse a repressive government.

TIMONEY: Oh, absolutely not. Trust me. I would not be here if I wasn't convinced from the Ministry of the Interior that these folks are serious about reform, looking at to get it right. However, I spent 29 years in the NYPD and then moved on to Philadelphia and Miami. And doing reform, even in reforming police departments, even the very stable - politically stable situation - is a daunting task.

Here, it's night after night of troubles, and day after day of troubles. It really is a heavy lift. At the end of the day, there needs to be a display of leadership on both sides. That they get together, sit down at the table and then come up with some workable solution going forward, that, you know, gives everybody, you know, 80 to 90 percent of what they're looking for. In a situation like that, then the reforms are much easier to implement.

INSKEEP: Well, John Timoney, thanks very.

TIMONEY: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: He's the former police chief in Miami and Philadelphia, now advising the Interior Ministry of Bahrain.

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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