Guarantees of Non-Recurrence: Transformative Police Reform

Guarantees of Non-Recurrence: Transformative Police Reform


In August 2014, 18-year-old Michael Brown is shot by the police in Ferguson (US). While the police speaks of self-defence and states that Michael Brown acted aggressively, others claim that he had his hands up and said ‘don’t shoot’. The incident sparked unrest and protest, both peaceful and violent. 

In June 2016, lawyer Willie Kimani is abducted together with his taxi driver and a client, who just filed a complaint against a police officer. A week later their tortured bodies are found in the outskirts of Nairobi, Kenya. Four police officers have been charged with the murder of these three men. The killings sparked outrage both in the streets and on social media under the hashtag ‘Stop extrajudicial killings’. 

In February 2017, during a police intervention in a suburb North of Paris, the 22-year-old Théo is beaten by police officers and raped with a police baton. He is severely injured and ends up in the hospital. In the weeks that follow, we see car burnings, riots and protesters asking for justice and peace.  

How to avoid violations?

The above three cases are examples of the perpetual problematic and disturbing relationship between the police and citizens across the globe. These three examples also led to wider political, public and academic debates on police reforms: how to avoid violations against future Michaels, Willies and Théos?   

In police reform initiatives, the emphasis is often placed upon top-down institutional changes. Although such efforts are crucial, research also validates that institutional reform is not sufficient in transforming particular structural dimensions and that many efforts implemented ‘from above’ do not necessarily trickle down into the communities that are policed. Rather, an approach ‘from below’ is often considered important in transforming mind-sets, yet much more difficult to implement. 

National French police in Paris
French National Police after the attacks of 15 November 2015

More empirical research

A similar pattern can be identified in the field of transitional justice, where research has shown that judicial and legal changes at state level do not suffice in bringing about justice to victims of violence, facilitating sustainable reform, or ensuring guarantees non-recurrence. In response, several scholars argue for transformative justice, emphasizing more community-based responses, capacity building and reconciliation. While the theory has been broadly embraced within the field of transitional justice, more empirical research on specific areas of reform are needed. 

We would like to align these two domains of research by developing a conceptual lens of transformative justice to analyze police reform. This implies a systemic and holistic approach to police reform that addresses larger structural issues, such as police violence and discrimination of marginalized groups. By analyzing the larger structural dimensions of police reform, we will gain insight into the various contesting powers between different interest groups, including police officers, citizens, and civil society actors. Through our lens of transformative justice, we aim to study when and how the interplay between top-down and bottom up initiatives may lead to more sustainable and peaceful police reforms.

Expert Workshop and Civil Engagement Seminar

To develop this transformative justice approach to police reform, we will organize a:


  1. A workshop (Fall 2018) that brings together approximately 10 experts from various disciplines to exchange their expertise from diverse case-studies. From the workshop, papers will be selected for a Special Issue in a high-ranking, peer-reviewed journal focused on policing and human rights.
  2. On the second day, we will focus on related issues in the Netherlands by organizing a civic engagement seminar with academics, Dutch police officers, and NGOs working on policing and human rights issues.

Involved Scholars