The transfer of democratic values and practices such as community-based policing to African police forces is a key aspect of western aid and security policies, yet the cultural transmission on which it depends is not fully understood; the ways in which African officers respond to theories and practices imported from western societies has yet to be assessed critically. Further, despite decades of international support for police reform and re-education, there is little evidence to support the assumption that the skills, technologies and procedures associated with western policing can act as an effective channel for the transmission of democratic values. This article uses the Nigerian police's response to both externally funded and internally generated reform projects to address a question with implications for policy transfer more generally: what explains the uneven transmission of politically sensitive forms of knowledge? It discusses how imported ideas and practices are received by Nigerian officers and political elites, and how they are transformed having been filtered through local interests and dispositions. It shows that even when the process of reform is accepted, the political will required to ensure its effective implementation is not. Democratic practices do not travel well because recipients respond to imported practices in an adaptive manner, integrating aspects of donor understanding and indigenous realities.