The past two decades or so have seen a growing interest in 'active' (or 'responsible') citizenship within local public safety projects and programmes, but little is known about how such projects function in practice. Besides presenting theoretical debates on community safety projects, this article reports empirical insights into the wealth and variety of informal, citizen-based contributions, specifically to handling communal crime and disorder in Amsterdam, capital city of the Netherlands. Subsequently, it assesses the kind of lessons empirical studies provide about the importance of 'social capital' for public participation, the perils of social exclusion and the nature of relationships between citizens and professionals. It is argued that enthusiastic efforts of individual citizens are equally important, if not more so, than strong social ties. Moreover, in overall terms, active participation tends to have a significant bias in favour of the white, middle-aged, middle-class population. Finally, benevolent citizens regularly encounter professional barriers and bureaucratic ceilings that inhibit their desire to participate. All rhetoric to the contrary notwithstanding, promoting genuine active citizenship is easier said than done. © The Author(s) 2011.