John Timoney's True Legacy Is Today's Enduring And Repressive Model For Policing Political Dissent

08/24/2016 12:06 pm ET Updated Aug 25, 2017

Police icon John Timoney was laid to rest this week with seemingly endless accolades for his work as an "innovative crime-fighter," who reformed police departments and "influenced law enforcement around the country."

But, the real legacy of John Timoney is getting barely a mention in the rush to applaud his trajectory of "beat cop to top cop" memorialized in Timoney's own memoirs. It is a legacy of violent suppression that anyone who takes to the streets in protest today inevitably confronts.

As Timoney rose through the ranks in the NYPD and became the first deputy commissioner in 1995 under Police Commissioner William Bratton, he dutifully implemented the "broken windows" policies of then-New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

Timoney's alleged "innovative tactics to curb crime" included increasing the numbers of police on the streets, aggressively enforcing "stop and frisk" policies, and locking up people -- predominantly people of color -- for "quality of life" crimes.

By the time Timoney was recruited by then-Mayor Edward Rendell to run the Philadelphia Police Department in 1998, he had already gained a considerable reputation.

But, it was during his time as Philadelphia Police Commissioner that Timoney began his most enduring and impactful legacy as one of the preeminent architects of today's model for policing political dissent.

Ahead of the 2000 Republican convention, Timoney traveled with other law enforcement officials to study the 1999 World Trade Organization protests in Seattle and the police response. He and other officials also traveled to Washington, DC as Global Justice activists gathered to protest the International Monetary Fund and World Bank in April 2000.

With the deliberate aim of controlling dissent, Timoney developed a playbook of tactics for a model of policing that social scientists call "strategic incapacitation."

That playbook of tactics, honed against RNC 2000 protesters, included heavy surveillance and infiltration, the establishment of anti-free speech ordinances and sweeping "security zones," political interrogations, unlawful stops and searches, preemptive raids on activist spaces, massive numbers of police in the streets, indiscriminate police violence, and mass arrests.

Once in jail, the playbook of tactics extends to city officials and the court system. As part of a concerted effort to keep protesters off the streets, political arrestees are commonly detained on prohibitively high bails, denied access to legal counsel, and held without arraignment in defiance of habeas corpus.

This form of policing worked so well for Timoney, his law enforcement cohorts, and the state, it was further honed over the years. Shortly after he left Philadelphia to become Miami Police Chief, Timoney oversaw one of the most violent and repressive responses to political protest in modern history during the Free Trade Area of the Americas summit in 2003. Miami Mayor Manny Diaz hailed the notoriously violent reaction as a "model for homeland defense," thereby branding this approach to policing the "Miami Model."

As technology has advanced and as more money has become available to municipal police forces, we've seen this model grow increasingly invasive, militaristic, and violent. Now, police can and do eavesdrop on cell phone communication without a warrant. We've seen an expansion of so-called "less-lethal" weapons, which are used with greater intensity and frequency. And, a greater number of battlefield weapons are being brought home and used on U.S. dissidents.

Timoney eventually took his expertise in controlling dissent to the private marketplace, working until his death for the global security firm Andrews International. Indeed, until Timoney was admitted to a Miami hospital with lung cancer earlier this year he was working to help the Bahraini monarchy control a years-long popular uprising happening in the small Persian Gulf island state. It was clearly his reputation for policing dissidents that landed him the job of helping the minority Sunni ruling class suppress the Shiite majority who have been agitating since the eruption of the Arab Spring in 2011.

One may attempt to eulogize Timoney as a "good cop," but there is no question he was fervently opposed to free speech, most especially when used in the struggle for social change.

Today, as the Movement for Black Lives faces increasingly repressive police tactics and in the wake of the wholesale suppression of the Occupy Wall Street movement, the true legacy of Timoney continues to have far-reaching and harmful consequences for dissidents, political movements, and democratic societies alike.

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Kris Hermes is an activist, legal worker and author of Crashing the Party: Legacies and Lessons from the RNC 2000 (PM Press).