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

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

by Steve Herbert


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Politicians, citizens, and police agencies have long embraced community policing, hoping to reduce crime and disorder by strengthening the ties between urban residents and the officers entrusted with their protection. 

That strategy seems to make sense, but in Citizens, Cops, and Power, Steve Herbert reveals the reasons why it rarely, if ever, works. Drawing on data he collected in diverse Seattle neighborhoods from interviews with residents, observation of police officers, and attendance at community-police meetings, Herbert identifies the many obstacles that make effective collaboration between city dwellers and the police so unlikely to succeed. At the same time, he shows that residents’ pragmatic ideas about the role of community differ dramatically from those held by social theorists.

Surprising and provocative, Citizens, Cops, and Power provides a critical perspective not only on the future of community policing, but on the nature of state-society relations as well.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226327310
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 04/15/2006
Edition description: 1
Pages: 168
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Steve Herbert is associate professor in the Department of Geography and the Law, Societies, and Justice Program at the University of Washington. He is the author of Policing Space: Territoriality and the Los Angeles Police Department.

Read an Excerpt

Citizens, Cops, and Power

Recognizing the Limits of Community

By STEVE HERBERT The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2006 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-32731-0

Chapter One

The Terrain of Community

So, there's just different levels of involvement, and I think a strong community would be everybody knows everybody, everybody says hello to everybody. It's kind of like a feel-good 1950ish type of situation, and you know, growing up, I knew everybody on my block. In fact, not just the street, the block. I knew everybody's kids. They knew exactly who everybody was. Everybody's family knew everybody else's family. And there was such an involvement. Everybody went to the same school. You saw the same people, the same parents at these functions. It was just really great.... But that was the 60's. This is different now. ANDREW, MIDLANDS RESIDENT

I know that sounds kind of silly, but I really feel it's important for everybody to experience what a community is supposed to be about. And some people don't have any idea what it means to go say hi to your neighbor. When I was a kid everybody knew everybody, but now with busing and logistics and working, it's different than it used to be in the old days. We don't have that same sense anymore, and I don't know how we as a city can get there. JEAN, EASTSIDE RESIDENT

How can cities "get there," in Jean's words? How can they attain asituation where residents of urban neighborhoods know and appreciate one another? Is it even possible for urban families to have the experience recalled by Andrew, where they know "everyone else's family" in the immediate area in which they live, where there is "such an involvement" with neighbors' lives? What impediments lie in the way of these ideals? And even if these impediments could be removed, should these ideals be pursued?

The philosophy of community policing, one popular instance of a drive toward greater communal governance, presumes that these ideals can and should be pursued. Its legitimacy rests upon the apparently unassailable assertion that urban citizens should come together to exert dominion over their neighborhoods. Security is often a collective good, and thus it should sensibly be pursued and reinforced collectively, via a process that marries the formal weight of the police with the informal dynamics in particular locales. Once organized, communities should articulate a common voice to which policy makers should respond.

Two normative assertions are being made here. One is that communities should construct themselves as political actors; the other is that the state should recognize them as such. One normative vision concerns the political status of community, the other the state-community relation.

A critical interrogation of the desirability and possibility of such communal governance projects as community policing must necessarily step back and assess these normative visions. To evaluate community policing's possibilities and legitimacy, we must hold these often implicit assumptions up to scrutiny. In this chapter, I begin this process by assessing the various significances ascribed to the term "community."

When we gain analytic distance from the rosy scenario of cohesive and politically capable communities, two sets of questions assert themselves. One set involves this normative vision of community. What informs this vision? What are its assumptions, proscriptions, weaknesses? Are there various such visions, and how do they contrast? In short, how do we understand and assess various depictions of the ideal community?

The second set of questions addresses how community is actually envisioned by residents of urban communities. Even if certain normative visions of community possess luster, do they jibe with the version of community that residents envision and enact in their daily behavior? How does the normative compare with the actual?

I pursue each of these sets of questions in the four sections of this chapter. In the first section, I seek to explain the resilience of community as a social and political ideal and to document how it came to be idealized in the now hegemonic project of community policing. Much of the seductiveness of community policing rests upon a largely unexamined romanticization of the small-scale democracy that neighborhoods can ostensibly create.

In the second section, I explain how normative visions of community and its political potential are by no means uniform. I do this by elaborating three principal normative visions. Two of these develop what I term a "thick" version of community-they each desire for community a robust role in social life-although they differ in an important way. The third is more a "thin" version, wary as it is of the exclusivity and majoritarianism community might entail. I review these three visions by explicating the assumptions upon which they build and the proscriptions they assert.

The third section draws extensively upon the interview data and reviews how the respondents talked about community. It becomes apparent that the common vision they express does not conform neatly with any of the above; it is a vision that is neither especially thick nor especially thin. What people want is a fundamental sense of connection and familiarity, but not in the pursuit of any larger set of values or political ideals. Rather, residents desire a feeling of security that derives from knowing one's neighbors well enough to be able to predict their actions. Their shared inhabitation of neighborhood space means that residents experience a collective need to protect each other from needless vulnerability, but this does not translate into a broader political project.

In the final section, I again mine the resident interviews to outline those factors that citizens believe maximize their feelings of security within the spaces they inhabit. Most critical here is property ownership. Residents hope for neighbors who demonstrate permanence and pride in ownership, qualities they believe renters commonly lack. Other glues include children, schools, and regular outdoor encounters. These characteristics, importantly, are more commonly found in neighborhoods of economic advantage, a point that will emerge with greater force in chapter 2, where I consider the hindrances to community cohesiveness and political effectiveness.

For now, the goal is to contrast the normative and the actual, the idealized visions of community and those articulated by citizens. As I demonstrate, the discrepancy between romanticized depictions of community governance and the actual desires of citizens is significant. This discrepancy should give us considerable pause in assessing projects like community policing, and should also cause us to wonder if urban neighborhoods can bear the weight of extensive self-governance. To see why this is the case, I begin by exploring just why community, and community policing, possess such political potency.

Why Community? Why Community Policing?

And it is easy to see why the word "community" feels good. Who would not wish to live among friendly and well-wishing people whom one could trust and on whose words and deeds one could rely? For us in particular-who happen to live in ruthless times, times of competition and oneupmanship, when people around us seem to keep their cards close to their chests and few people seem to be in any hurry to help us, when in reply to our cries for help we hear admonitions to help ourselves, when only the banks eager to mortgage our possessions are smiling and wish to say "yes," and even they only in their commercials and not their branch offices-the word "community" sounds sweet. What that word evokes is everything we miss and what we lack to be secure, confident and trusting. ZYGMUNT BAUMAN, COMMUNITY: SEEKING SAFETY IN AN INSECURE WORLD

As Zygmunt Bauman suggests, community is clearly a word that feels good. It certainly sits at the center of many normative visions of the good life. It implies, at minimum, a degree of fundamental social connection that provides a shield against the unpredictable vagaries of modern existence. In more expansive visions, it provides a vehicle through which we can develop and actualize a range of goods and values: we can draw closer to God; we can develop our potentials as a musician, a writer, a parent; we can strive collectively to assist others. In terms of politics, community can serve as a principal means to protect an existing way of life against possible change. Alternatively, community can be a tool to try to create arrangements that more closely actualize such communally held values as justice, equality, and fairness.

Community is an elusive yet potent ideal in American social and political discourse. It is a focus of everyday concern, of sociological analysis, of efforts to revitalize politics. It is something potentially to be experienced daily, as one engages others in the minutiae of daily life and the shared responsibilities of raising children, maintaining property, and tending to the disadvantaged. It can reinforce connection as it helps people to meet basic needs or to pursue common interests. It can provide senses of belonging and direction. And it can be mobilized by a neighborhood to address such collective concerns as crime, property maintenance, and development. In its social dimension, it provides a communal grounding; in its political dimension, a collective heft for a group's interests.

Both of these ideals possess longstanding legitimacy. As the interviewees quoted above indicate, there is a frequently expressed nostalgia for the "good old days," when one knew one's neighbors via relations of familiarity and stability. This nostalgia is not just popularly expressed, but is a central theme in modern sociology. For early sociologists like Ferdinand Tönnies and Émile Durkheim, the challenge of modernity concerned the shift from close-knit rural societies to more socially differentiated urban centers, from Gemeinschaft to Gesellschaft, from mechanical to organic solidarity. As Nisbet noted, community is "the most fundamental and far-reaching of sociology's unit-ideas." Much work in urban sociology has focused on the extent to which something called "community" can remain extant in the modern city, and if so, whether that community is localized or spatially dispersed. Certainly, a sense of loss motivates many analyses undertaken in the name of communitarianism, a movement of both theory and politics that seeks to restore and make politically legitimate the bonds arguably only produced and reinforced via communal connections. From both academic and popular literatures, one hears frequent complaints about how the hegemonic status of individualism and the various complications of daily life increasingly leave urban residents disconnected from one another, and hence poorly able to act as a palliative or political collective.

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 establishing bonds. Further, such a community can help us meet basic needs. Who does not want a neighbor from whom one can cadge the occasional cup of sugar, the half hour of emergency babysitting, the advice or the tool to make a home improvement project successful? 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.

Political efficacy is one possible goal communities can pursue. Perhaps, some suggest, there is an ingrained-and too frequently undeveloped-desire for humans to experience a sense of self-governance. Just as humans are social creatures, they are implicitly political ones as well, with an innate need to exercise as much control as possible over their own lives. This line of argument is captured well in Benjamin Barber's insistence on what he terms "strong democracy." Barber argues that citizens need to be able to govern themselves in at least some public matters at least some of the time. Without such political participation, he argues, "Women and men cannot become individuals." Given the intrinsic interdependencies of human existence, this participation should occur through communal organizations. Discussions and debates within such organizations present opportunities for individual members to enlarge their understandings of one another and to grow and develop as they seek to forge ways forward together. In such a fashion, citizens can develop together a politics of transformation, invention, and creation. To increase the possibility for such communal participation, it makes considerable sense to devolve political authority to the lowest possible level. As political units decrease in size, their senses of solidarity and effectiveness should increase. Such smaller-scale institutions are more likely to represent the interests of the group, and thus to improve the sense of connectedness individuals feel to the collective.

From this perspective, then, the good is best pursued through politics, namely through active citizenship in a virtuous, localized community. Jeffrey Berry summarizes this ideal well: "To the most degree feasible, we should engage in face-to-face democracy, working with our neighbors to govern ourselves rather than relying on elected representatives to make decisions on our behalf. Face-to-face participation will make us better citizens by educating us about our communities and teaching us to be tolerant and cooperative." Such an ideal of collective efficacy is regnant across the political spectrum. Leftists, moderates, and conservatives all embrace local groups as a key to political regeneration, as central to any strategy of more overarching change. For a range of political goods, in a range of places, small-scale collectives are seen as a viable if not indispensable means for ensuring that citizens are able to advance and protect their interests vis-à-vis larger social forces that might otherwise swamp them.

The Case for Community Policing

Security is one good that localized collectives might sensibly pursue. Problems of crime and disorder possess a geography, and thus residents of a given neighborhood will usually experience threats collectively. Thus, they should sensibly seek protection from threats as a collective. Further, there is much evidence that informal social control efforts are critical contributors to a neighborhood's degree of security. Such informal control can be expressed through various means-gossip, avoidance, ostracism, surveillance, scoldings-and can work to help maintain order, even in distressed neighborhoods. An organized neighborhood can also exert pressure on the police and other components of the formal social control apparatus to help mitigate or eliminate an ongoing situation of crime or disorder. It is thus quite understandable that "community" makes frequent appearances in efforts to address the causes and consequences of crime. Community policing is a popular and well-publicized example of such efforts.

Community policing's initial formulations grew out of concerns about poor police-community relations, particularly in urban neighborhoods of concentrated disadvantage. It was arguably not by accident that many riots in America's cities in the 1960s were ignited by a tense police-citizen encounter. This tense dynamic was likely exacerbated by the police's adherence to the then hegemonic ideal of police organization, the professional model. As professionals, police understood themselves as the uniquely qualified experts in crime control who swooped onto crime scenes and deployed their tactics in a detached and efficient way. Citizens were adjuncts to this process, brought in only under the precise guidelines laid down by the police: the "just the facts, ma'am" approach of that prototypical police professional, Sergeant Joe Friday of TV's Dragnet.

But this aloof, sometimes brusque style had two distinct disadvantages. First, it alienated the police from communities, particularly those whose members complained that brusqueness often tended into aggressiveness, that the police's desire to assert authority often took physical expression. A second problem was that the professional model did not accomplish its purported mission of eliminating crime. The police, it turned out, could not fight crime with only diminished community participation; they needed neighborhood informants and eyewitnesses.

Both of these shortcomings of the professional model were seen as remediable by advocates of community policing. The police could shorten the distance between themselves and urban residents by walking beats on foot, opening up substations, attending community meetings, and otherwise making themselves more open to casual contact. Police organizations would empower lower-level operatives, like patrol officers, to devise creative approaches to solving particular problems, to better incorporate the input from residents that was generated from these casual contacts. Residents' satisfaction with the police would grow, and with it their desire to work cooperatively and productively with the police.


Excerpted from Citizens, Cops, and Power by STEVE HERBERT Copyright © 2006 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

1. The Terrain of Community
2. The Political Status of Community
3. Elusive Legitimacy: Subservient, Separate, or Generative?
4. "Don't Drink the Kool-Aid": On the Resistance to Community Policing
5. "It Is so Difficult": The Complicated Pathways of Police-Community Relations
6. The Unbearable Lightness of Community 

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