© 2020, © 2020 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group. This paper reports the findings of an empirical research project, exploring ongoing attempts to mainstream restorative justice within two English police forces and examining how the police understood and used restorative justice in practice. The findings suggest that two institutional priorities–to satisfy victims and manage the demand on the police’s time–strongly influenced the interpretation and practice of restorative justice. This created tensions as police officers who facilitated restorative justice processes used their discretion to determine, on a case-by-case basis, how best to balance these institutional goals with the restorative goal of stakeholder empowerment. These findings illustrate how the police can implement abstract concepts in a selective, discretionary manner, and enhances the limited empirical literature that explains how existing priorities and embedded ways of working within criminal justice agencies, shape their understanding and use of restorative justice in practice. Such knowledge is crucial, if we are to help maximise the benefits and minimise the risks of restorative justice and restorative policing. The article also introduces the concept of ‘managed empowerment’ to help explain how the tensions between restorative and institutional goals manifested themselves.