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Citizens, Cops, and Power: Recognizing the Limits of Community

by Steve Herbert

Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2006. 168 pp.

ISBN 0-226-32730-2 (hardcover) $40.00

ISBN 0-226-32731-0 (paperback) $16.00

Review by Paul T. P. Wong

It is only fair to both authors and readers for reviewers to state their qualifications and motivations. Such “bracketing” is just as important as prior declaration of potential conflict of interest, because it enables readers to determine whether the reviews can be taken seriously.

That being said, do I have the necessary expertise to review a book on social and political theories of community policing? Regarding my credentials, I have written on the subject matter of community building (Wong, 2003) and creating a cooperative culture (Wong, 2006). In addition, I have been actively engaged in community development projects, for which I have received a Vancity Award. Therefore, I have more than a passing interest in the subject matter of community.

This interest stems from my deep conviction that the positive psychology of individual happiness remains incomplete without discovering the social ecology necessary for human happiness. My primary motive to review Steve Herbert’s book, Citizens, Cops, and Power: Recognizing the Limits of Community, is to determine how macrosociological analysis can complement micropsychological analysis in enhancing our understanding of how to restore and create a positive, humane community.

Importance of Community

There is a consensus that community is essential to the good life, regardless of one’s theoretical orientation or political stripe. Community has gained the status of a God word in spite of the dominant ethos of individualism in American culture. Enlightened individualism has arrived at the inescapable conclusion that individual interests are best served by preserving and enhancing the common good.

Because matters of personal safety and security are of vital concern to the general public, it is not difficult to understand why the concept of community policing is welcomed by both politicians and citizens. Who does not want to make their neighborhood safer? Who can object to the localized democracy of police and citizens working together to reduce crimes and maintain law and order?

The federal government provides funding for the Weed and Seed program. Weeding refers to law enforcement to incarcerate criminals; seeding refers to social programs to meet people’s basic needs, such as housing, education, and employment. The program seems a reasonable approach to the problems of crimes and poverty in distressed communities through partnership between government and citizen groups. Seattle Police Department’s community policing project embodies the philosophy of the Weed and Seed Program. Therefore, it makes sense for Herbert to focus his research on selected neighborhoods in Seattle.

Herbert makes it clear that the objective of the research is not to assess the efficacy of community policing. He is more interested in social political theories. “My interest, ultimately, is in the capacity for community policing to enable neighborhoods to generate localized democratic action and to garner the attention of the state” (p. 11). More specifically, he attempts to answer two normative questions regarding community policing: First, can and should “community” be treated as a legitimate and effective political agent to address local problems such as crime? Second, if it can, how can and should “community” interact with police as an agent of the state?

Therefore, the research question is narrowly framed and designed to test social theories of community with respect to community policing. Given this sharp focus, Herbert is able to tackle the subject in a systematic and thorough manner. The main conclusion of the book is that community policing seldom works. This is based on the ethnographic data he collects from three different Seattle neighborhoods. He interviews residents, observes police officers in action, and attends community–police meetings.

The author is fully aware of the limitations of his qualitative case study research method, but his methodology is clearly appropriate given the nature of his research question. However, he seems less concerned that the process of qualitative research, especially research based on the interpretative approach, is vulnerable to subjective biases of the researcher. I have the uneasy feeling that Herbert’s less-than-positive view of the use and abuse of police power may have in some subtle way influenced his research findings and conclusion.

Different Visions of Community

The human longing for belonging and social connection is perhaps the most powerful psychological driving force for community. The collective need for cultivating civil virtues and social capital is yet another powerful psychological motive. Thus, community may be best understood in relational terms. As a psychologist, I could not have articulated the psychological, relational nature of community as well as Herbert:

Why this persistent longing for community? Part of the explanation must lie with our basic need for social connection. Community can thus be understood as an end in itself, a forum for making friends and establish bonds… Beyond this, communal groups can be the indispensable fora for the realization of treasured values or the development of varying interests. In this way, “communities are necessary for the ongoing pursuit of a life of meaning and exploration.” (p. 19)

I would like to have seen these psychological themes at least considered during both data collection and content analysis, but Herbert chose to focus exclusively on the political efficacy of communal organizations and community policing from the perspective of social political theories.

Herbert examines and then rejects two thick versions of community. The first thick version of community as recovered is based on a nostalgic yearning to restore the communal bonds and shared values that once existed in rural communities. Such small-scale communities provide “structure and meaning to people’s lives” (p .23). This vision is favored by moral communitarians who criticize liberalism for its excessive emphasis on individual rights at the expense of collective value systems. The phenomenon of “bowling alone” (Putnam, 2000) results from losing the social capital that can be developed only through communal endeavors. We can regain a sense of moral order and traditional values by restoring strong, cohesive communities.

However, critics point out that the moral communitarian vision of community is necessarily exclusive and oppressive. By reinforcing the shared values of insiders, we decrease tolerance and acceptance of those who advocate more progressive social values.

From my psychological perspective, such criticism does not necessarily negate the value of the communitarian vision, as long as individuals have the freedom of choice. The danger of oppression is minimized when many small-scale homogeneous communities coexist in an open democratic society and people are free to join any community that shares their most cherished values. The best example is the coexistence of different ethnocultural communities in metropolitan cities. We can also reduce the danger of exclusion by seeking to restore such universal values as compassion, respect, tolerance, and cooperation; such universal values can only be reached through consensus building.

The second thick version is community as discovered. This represents a politically oriented vision that advocates small-scaled democracy based on the self-determination by citizens to solve collective problems. The desire for self-determination inevitably leads to communal endeavors as people band together to exercise political influence over governance.

Critics of this vision question whether people are generally motivated to be political, and whether self-actualization and self-determination necessarily lead to political involvement. Again, I am more optimistic than these critics. Even though the critics’ doubts seem valid, people will and do take political actions when they feel that vital interests are threatened by misguided government policies. One example is the massive antiwar demonstrations during the Vietnam War; such public protests might have contributed to ending the unpopular war.

Herbert makes the case that, because of a prevailing culture of individualism in America, people might not want the kind of connection and commitment required for thick versions. Therefore, advocates of liberalism favor a thin version because individuals are very mobile; they move from community to community and choose the goods most meaningful to each individual. This might be “the best way to ensure an open-ended inclusive polyvocal, and inclusive political process” (p. 28)

On the basis of his interview data, Herbert concludes that there is no support for the ideals of the thick versions. Instead, the residents he interviewed favor some kind of thin version; they have the pragmatic view of a community in which they are free to be left alone, but at the same time they could enjoy some basic familiarity with neighbors who are seen as reliable and predictable. Such loose neighborly relationships are desirable because these reduce feelings of vulnerability.

Residents also expressed doubts and pessimism about their political potency. Herbert identifies four factors as primarily responsible for the political lightness of the community: individualism, heterogeneity, transience, and fear. People like to be left alone and do not want to get involved. Demographic heterogeneity and social difference make it even more difficult to foster a sense of belonging and community. The transient nature of many urban citizens, who tend to be renters rather than property owners, does not contribute to neighborly relations. Finally, fear of retaliation by criminal elements and fear of police retribution further prevent people from getting involved. These impediments are greater in communities that have greater need for community building.

The political potency of community is further undermined by the complicated relationships between police and citizens. Police are there to serve the citizens, but at the same time they cannot always be responsive to public input because they also need to “strive toward some degree of neutrality, loyal primarily to the abstract rule of law” (p. 65) to protect the rights of the marginalized.

In addition to the inherent tension between subservience and separation, the state is also generative of community. In other words, the police, as state actors, need to set up certain structures and bureaucratic procedures for public input, and set themselves up as vanguards of an “overarching moralism” (p. 93). They take pride in their role of catching the “bad apples” and putting them away. The processes of separation and generativity render meaningful partnership between police and community difficult.

In view of the above constraints, Herbert proposes the need to rethink or abandon community policing as a viable approach to restore community. He questions the efficacy and the philosophy of Weed and Seed programs without suggesting any alternatives. However, although he dismisses community as a viable force for political actions, Herbert reaffirms community as essential to the good life through social–psychological means:

Community can, of course, exist as a central component of meaning, value, and support, both within and outside their neighborhoods. In many cases, these neighborhoods can possess a skein of relations capable of exerting informal social control sufficient to help reduce rates of crime. (p. 147)

Overall Assessment

I find Herbert’s analysis provocative but have some reservations about his narrow focus and pessimistic conclusion. He is dismissive of the two thick versions of community, perhaps prematurely. His own data suggest that people need more than just a thin community. They need some kind of neighborly relations, which are possible only where there are some basic shared values. Ideally, both thick and thin versions of community are needed so that individuals can choose to participate in different combinations of community life.

Hall (1966) identified four spaces of human interactions: public, social, personal, and intimate. Hall’s analysis recognizes the complexity of community and suggests all three versions of community can coexist in an open society. It provides a promising conceptual framework for creating a positive, harmonious community.

Myers (2003) proposed that a healthy community involves all four spaces, and that four spaces can meet such a need. For example, in public space, such as a U2 concert or a soccer game, strangers can experience oneness because of a common external object.

In social space, such as ethnocultural associations, political parties, or religious groups, which individuals are free to join, the need for preserving shared moral values and exerting political influence can be met. Finally, in personal and intimate spaces, individuals’ need for belonging are met through family and friends.

I am also fascinated by Herbert’s analysis of the three normative perspectives of state–society relations. His analysis can be easily applied to management–employee tensions in large organizations. Simply recognizing the legitimacy of subservience, separation, and generativity has already helped human resources managers to find creative ways to reduce the inherent tensions between the three narratives.

Finally, I have the uneasy feeling that Herbert may have a deep-seated mistrust of police power, which is clearly evident in several of his vivid descriptions of police officers’ behaviors. Is it possible that this bias may have influenced his negative assessment of the future of community policing? Even though community does not have the political capacity for meaningful partnership with police, there are still many informal opportunities to strengthen the working relationships between police and citizens.

In qualitative research, the process drives the product. I suspect that if the interview had not been directed intentionally to political action, but broadened enough to include informal and personal relationships, the future of community policing might look brighter.

Because justice and law reinforcement are the twin pillars of democracy, individuals’ freedom to pursue the good life becomes difficult if not impossible without law and order. For psychologists interested in restoring, discovering, and building positive communities, how to make community policing work remains a challenge. Personally, I am favorably inclined toward the positive psychology of civil virtues, social capital, and personal relationships as a viable conceptual framework. Such focus on human virtues and strengths can trump all the impediments listed by Herbert.

I recommend this book to anyone who is serious about community building, even if they are not particularly interested in the issue of community policing. This slim book is a valuable addition to the ongoing discourse on the subject of community. It is very well written and enjoyable to read, if one can get used to the sociological terminology.


  1. Hall, E. T. (1966). The hidden dimension. New York, NY: Anchor Books/Doubleday.
  2. Myers, J. R. (2003). The search to belong: Rethinking intimacy, community, and small groups. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
  3. Putnam, R. D. (2000). Bowling alone: The collapse and revival of American community. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
  4. Wong, P. T. P. (2003). Building positive communities. Positive Living Newsletter. Retrieved from http://www.meaning.ca/archives/presidents_columns/pres_col_oct_2003_positive-communities.htm
  5. Wong, P. T. P. (2006). Is your organization an obstacle course or a relay team? A meaning-centered approach to creating a collaborative culture. In S. Schuman (Ed.), Creating a culture of collaboration: The International Association of Facilitators handbook (pp. 229-256). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass/Wiley.


Wong, P. T. P. (2007). Civil virtues, social capital, and positive community [Review of the book Citizens, cops, and power: Recognizing the limits of community]. PsycCRITIQUES, 52(2). doi:10.1037/a0006103