Bahrain’s Community Policing Challenge

By Daniel N.

Reforming much-hated security forces are the first step in resolving the Island nation’s sectarian conflict before it deteriorates further.

As Bahrain braces for the year anniversary of the outbreak of its protest movement, worrying trends are beginning to emerge in the activity of its Shia-led activist groups. Since February 14 2011, the opposition’s modus operandi consisted of mostly civil disobedience acts aimed at drawing the world’s attention to the inequality facing the Shia majority. In past months however, activists have stepped up acts of violence, mainly aimed at security forces, whose alleged brutality has come to symbolize their oppression at the hands of the Sunni monarchy.

An opposition activist runs from riot police in Bahrain.

On January 24, opposition groups launched a campaign dubbed “the Rebel’s grip” aimed at expelling the regime’s security forces from Shia villages in the central and northern parts of the Island. The campaign comes days after a prominent Shia cleric issued a particularly scathing sermon, calling for supporters to assault any security personnel suspected of attacking female protesters.  The opposition’s rage towards security forces comes after a year of high profile incidents involving protesters’ deaths as a result of police brutality. Many of these incidents were caught on video, spread through social media and ingrained in the minds of activists.

Regardless of whether their motives are justified or not, the opposition’s shift toward violence presents a real threat to the prosperity of a nation which seeks to shift from natural resources to international trade and commerce as its future source of revenue.   In an effort to quell this discontent, the regime launched the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) which recommended reforming the police force as a primary step towards reconciliation. In early January 2012, public security chief Tariq Al Hassan announced the implementation of “community policing” programs in which 500 officers would be recruited in order to police their own communities.

These programs are likely the result of consultations with recently enlisted Western experts, who have themselves been part of the trend of community policing which has swept forces from Los Angeles to London in recent decades.  This policy was born out of the realization that trust and coordination between the police and the communities they serve is a critical factor in preserving order.  It remains clear that such reforms are crucial to restoring stability in Bahrain, given the ever-widening gap of trust between police and Shia residents.

Unfortunately for the Bahraini government however, community policing is not a quick fix for the Island’s problems and therefore must be implemented holistically and patiently in order to achieve real results.  Ground level reforms already proposed will not be successful in winning hearts and minds unless the police leadership makes it clear to the people that their perceptions of the police are indeed important.  Performance surveys gauging the impact of new programs, meetings with community leaders, and increased transparency regarding officer misconduct are all proven methods which have helped improve public opinion of police forces in Europe and elsewhere.

In addition, Bahraini security forces must place special emphasis on appealing to the new generation of Shia youth and garnering their trust. Police must learn about quality of life issues in Shia villages, penetrating schools and setting up programs aimed at cooperatively solving these problems.

Lastly, the Bahraini police must accept and compensate for the factors that are currently tarnishing their image and effectively preventing them from fulfilling their role in preserving order.  As seen in the past year, the primary factor is the issue of police brutality- a trend particularly difficult to stem while persistent riots require a forceful response in order to be dispersed.  As such, a two pronged effort is required to nip the bud of what has become a central issue in the Bahraini discourse. Firstly, a dependable and transparent internal affairs division must be established within the force. Second, the Public Security Ministry must work to coordinate and approve peaceful demonstrations, even those taking place in high profile areas of the capital.

It is at this point that the success of community policing in Bahrain is dependent upon the government’s overall willingness to commit to reconciliation with willing opposition groups, including the staunchly opposed Al Wefaq organization.  In a nation where mistrust between the government and the people is deeply entrenched along sectarian lines, the former’s choice in allowing the latter to demonstrate is truly the hardest step.  Indeed, the concept of a liberal policing policy in a region known for absolutist rule may seem laughable to many skeptics. However, it was likely those same skeptics who laughed at the possibility of free elections in former dictatorships like Tunisia, or the power of the common man in Egypt.

As such, community policing indeed provides the opportunity for the Bahraini government to engage in its own revolutionary act, by proactively ensuring stability by restoring trust between the people and the police.  As exhibited elsewhere in the region, they may not have a choice.

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