Concerns over police conduct and public health took center stage Monday as Princeton Borough officials held their first open, public dialogue in an ongoing series of "Open Doors" community meetings.
Some 70 residents turned out for the presentation, held at the First Baptist Church, including 17 teenagers from the WOWY (World of Work for Youth) program sponsored by Corner House.
After being introduced to Borough Mayor Mildred Trotman, Police Chief Anthony Federico, health officer David Henry, Borough administrator Robert Bruschi, and the Reverend Carlton E. Branscomb, Pastor of the First Baptist Church, the audience heard brief presentations from Mr. Henry and from Chief Federico.
Mr. Henry reported on the work of the Princeton Regional Health Department that serves the Borough and the Township and represents the needs of some 30,000 people. He said that his department was working on flu pandemic preparedness and that there would be flu shots for the elderly at the Suzanne Patterson Center on December 5. He mentioned plans to work with the Mercer County Emergency Management Office to train volunteers who would be stationed in Princeton for a Community Emergency Response Team (CERT).
After introducing himself as a person born and bred in Princeton born the very day after his immigrant mother had arrived in the United States Chief Federico, a veteran of 27 years with the police force, described the Borough Police Department's primary duties and responsibilities and addressed current issues, one of which, he said is communication. "We want an open dialog with our community," he said.
He spoke of the need for more manpower. The current force stands at 32 officers, which is two less than in the years prior to 2005. With the extra two men, he said, the force was better able to maintain community programs.
He also made a point of saying that Princeton police are not charged with enforcing immigration laws. "On the whole, we are not concerned with immigration law," he said.
Then he addressed the issue that most of the audience had come for. Describing gang activity as a growing problem in Princeton Borough, originating outside the community and developing within it, he said: "This is a real danger. It's not just perceived. It's real, it's dangerous, and we need to deal with it."
As the microphone circulated, the discussion opened to the audience, which included many prominent Princetonians: John Witherspoon Middle School Principal Bill Johnson, Claire Jacobus of the Friends of the Library, Former Township Mayor Jim Floyd, Board of Education members Alan Hegedus and Walter Bliss, and Borough Council members Barbara Trelstad and Wendy Benchley, among others.
The discussion focused on the concern of the majority: the community-wide perception that black youth in Princeton are treated differently by Borough and Township police.
The first questioner asked about the incident in September in which four Princeton youths were removed from Princeton High School by Borough police officers for questioning. He asked if the crime for which the boys were later charged had been classified as a bias crime. Chief Federico answered that it had been referred to the County Prosecutor as a bias crime.
Former Township Mayor Jim Floyd asked the chief if there was any relationship between new gang activity and the sale of drugs. Chief Federico, who described a recent drugs raid by Borough police officers on Clay Street where there were gang members from Trenton, said it was likely that the two were related.
Several WOWY members asked questions about how the police plan to deal with gang activity. "Tonight's meeting and this dialog is a beginning; we have identified the problem and we need to work together as a community," said Chief Federico. "People gravitate to gangs because they lack family structure so it's important that we as parents are aware of what our kids are doing." He suggested that parents take a look at their kids' MySpace accounts to see what kids are putting on there. "It will be an eye-opener."
In response to another high school questioner as to what the police, rather than parents, are going to do, Chief Federico said that in addition to enforcing the law, the police also work with youth organizations and particpate in activities such as the basketball tournament that took place in Princeton over the summer. "We believe in being active in our community and working with the children in the community, for children are our future."
One Borough resident asked for statistics for gang related activities. While Chief Federico had no statistics to provide, he reported on several recent incidents that he said can be related directly to gang activity, citing a series of robberies where individuals had identified themselves as gang members (one involving the use of a handgun on Palmer Square).
The resident then asked about the kinds of training given to police officers to help them determine what constitutes gang activity and gang membership, and whether there was also any social training for police. The response was that the force regularly participates in annual gang awareness training through Mercer County and that officers are being trained in gang prevention so that they can put on programs for students in the schools.
Mr. Bruschi added that an "inordinate" amount of training is required of police officers, which can put an enormous strain on a small department.
Addressing Chief Federico, one audience member asked what can be done about the community's perception that Princeton Borough and Princeton Township police behave differently when it comes to the treatment of Princeton's black youth. Nodding in assent with the questioner, several black audience members expressed the feeling that one could approach and have a civil conversation with a Township police officer but not with a Borough officer.
Chief Federico responded that he did not share that perception. Mr. Bruschi interjected the following: "When those instances happen there's a whole process where you can report an officer and we should be interested in knowing if there is a situation. If you don't feel comfortable bringing it to the police, bring it to my office." He said that part of the perception may stem from the fact that the Borough is very different from the Township because there are more opportunities for police action within the Borough because of the downtown area with a lot of transient visitors."
A member of the Concerned Citizens of Princeton, a group working with the police department, commended Chief Federico and his staff for "trying to help us save 30 kids from gang activity we lost a few, but we saved more than we lost," he said. He was critical however, of the police information officer for the perception that gang activity is worse than it is, exaggerating the issue and inciting fear in the community. "Perhaps he should tone it down a little bit," he said.
Members of the audience spoke candidly about their feelings that African American youths were being targeted by Borough officers; being pulled over and sometimes searched when doing nothing but hanging out together with their friends. "That's not perception, that's fact," said one father who claimed that kids are being dealt with in a manner not conducive to good police-community relations on a daily basis.
"This is the first time, I've heard of it," said Chief Federico, who added that when a complaint was made recently that the Borough had violated the civil rights of four black students at PHS, the attorney general found that the police had done nothing wrong.
The point was made several times during the evening, that the police had not broken any laws in the recent incident in September when four youths were removed from PHS for questioning.
Princeton Regional Board of Education member Alan Hegedus spoke from the audience about his role as head of a new committee created to examine ways to improve the agreed protocols and procedures between police departments and Princeton schools. "As a result of the recent incident, the document of agreement between the school board and the police departments is being reviewed by a committee formed for the purpose; fashioning revisions will make us more comfortable with the document," he said.
The police chief was asked whether the police monitor their officers for harassment. Yes, said the chief, and if anyone has a complaint it will be investigated. "Please come forward, identify the officer, the car, the badge number. We look at patterns. We look at multiple complaints," he said, adding that last year the department conducted 12 internal affairs investigations of which four or five were sustained and officers reprimanded. While not all of the complaints were for harassment issues, the numbers show that complaints are taken seriously and dealt with seriously.
Encouraging community members to make their complaints formal, Ms. Trotman said: "I have lived in the Borough for 45 years and I stress the importance of following up. There is no reason that you cannot make a complaint. If you don't know the officers address, give the date, location, time of day."
The police chief added: "Tonight is a beginning. We welcome dialogue with the community. I am sorry that there is a perception that the Borough police are not as approachable as the Township police."
The word "perception" having been used a great deal during the evening, Pastor Branscomb eloquently rounded up the evening's discussion with an impromptu examination of the term and its use. His point in a nutshell was that perceptions matter and are often derived from fact and experience. He spoke of his own experience in Princeton, when he was not dressed in his usual pastor's garb, and the rude treatment he had received from Borough police officers. "Our kids are not angels but they do not deserve to be treated like hardened criminals," he said.
The last word however, came from another audience member, who quietly pointed out that there have been violent attacks in Princeton on some of the most vulnerable members of its community, immigrants who are often reluctant to come forward to complain about what has happened to them.
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