Police reform is thought to require a police force to break with its past. This is notably so in the aftermath of conflict or regime change. In practice, however, most police forces are selectively reconstituted, and their development is influenced as much by legacy issues as by international standards filtered through local norms. This article uses the experience of Somalia’s three regional police forces to reconsider the relationship between past and present projects to build police authority and capacity, and what this says about institutional memory in the absence of documentation. In Somalia, as in other clan or tribal-based societies, police development is influenced by a blend of security levels, political imperatives, pragmatism, international resources and memories of past practices, with group experience playing a more significant role than institutional memory. The only identifiable general principle is the need for political settlements and tactical flexibility – that is, for stability.
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