Staci Strobl, associate professor and chair of the Criminal Justice department at the University of Wisconsin–Platteville. 

The June 16 imprisonment of Bahraini opposition leader Sheikh Ali Salman, one of the main symbols of hope for the marginalized Shia, recently sparked a new round of nonviolent protests that drew thousands into the streets. Salman’s jailing last month has shown that policing in the tiny Gulf state continues to be heavy-handed, sectarian, and contrary to the government’s slick public relations machine that alleges otherwise. 

In 2011, the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry found that police were responsible for deaths during the Arab uprisings, including five people who were killed by police torture. The regime responded by declaring a number of reforms, such as creating a Special Investigations Unit to address police abuses, establishing a police ombudsperson, reportedly bolstering community-oriented policing, and installing video cameras in interview rooms.

Yet most human rights groups and scholars following the reforms have concluded that they have been superficial or unfulfilled entirely. In addition, the proposed Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) regional police force is working closely with Bahraini Interior Minister Lieutenant-General Sheikh Rashid bin Abdulla Al Khalifa, interpreting its main mandate as combating internal terrorist threats in Bahrain—which often includes the political opposition. But such a regional force would more resolutely expand the powers of the GCC from being an alliance of countries focused on external security threats through its members’ military forces to having a civilian police force ready to put down member countries’ political oppositions on command. The precursor to this proposed force was the deployment of GCC militaries in Bahrain to squash anti-government demonstrations during the 2011 Arab uprisings.

Meanwhile, meaningful steps like increasing the scant representation of non-Sunni Bahrainis in the national police force have not been undertaken. Instead, many Shia officers have been dismissed since 2011 under dubious circumstances, and heavy-handed police responses to non-violent demonstrations have continued at a steady pace for over four years.

A recent Washington Post editorial correctly surmised that Bahraini leaders have “sized up the [political] situation with particular cynicism,” realizing that any U.S. calls for reform are mere lip service as long as the Obama administration remains more concerned about balancing Iranian influence and shoring up the support of Gulf Sunni monarchies in exchange for their cooperation fighting against the Islamic State. Unfortunately, the U.S. administration has lifted its weapons ban (which had been in place since 2011), even as it concedes that the human rights situation in Bahrain is less than adequate. 

It is no surprise then that calls for the United States to hold the Bahraini police accountable, such as Human Rights First’s recommendations last winter for police reform, have fallen on deaf ears. These demands included U.S. pressure to release statistics on Sunni and Shia representation in the police force, a plan to recruit more non-Sunni officers, and a comprehensive joint-training program in human rights, which would bring in Shia community leaders as joint-trainers of the force. 

Such joint training involves important work that aims to chip away at discriminatory police institutional culture and transform social attitudes among the broader public. Because policing is largely an order-maintenance function, popular notions about which social groups are dangerous are a huge factor in police decisionmaking. Even in countries considered to have a strong commitment to the rule of law—such as the United States—we see how police forces can become occupational, subcultural concentrates of larger, discriminatory attitudes in society, such as the pattern of racist policing in Ferguson, Missouri.

As I have argued elsewhere, Bahraini policing has long been characterized by politically sectarian policies and deployment strategies—with the police force serving as the enforcement arm of the state’s discriminatory notions of social and political order. More forcefully tying U.S.-provided equipment to a better human rights record is fundamental to solving Bahrain’s crisis, and U.S. pressure is desperately needed for Bahrain to initiate genuine police reform and counter a culture of Shia punishment.