Just after midnight on February 2, 1946, Princeton Borough policeman Walter B. Harris was leaving a social club near his John Street home to get ready for his shift when he heard the sound of gunfire. According to newspaper accounts at the time, the 31-year-old did what any good officer would do С he ran back to the club. Attempting to stop three men, one of whom had fired a shot during an altercation, Mr. Harris was hit in the head with the butt of a gun, and then shot in the abdomen. He died at Princeton Hospital 30 minutes later.
It has taken 68 years, but Officer Harris’s valiant efforts have been officially recognized. At the meeting of Princeton Council Monday night, Mr. Harris’s two daughters and other family members were on hand to hear Mayor Liz Lempert read a proclamation naming February 2, 2014 as Officer Walter Harris Day. On Sunday, flags at the Municipal Building will fly at half-mast, and all police personnel on duty will drape their badges with black tape.
“We’re hoping to honor him every year, and we hope to get a monument to honor him in the municipal complex,” said Sergeant Geoff Maurer, earlier in the day. Mr. Maurer and Officer Chris King were instrumental in gaining recognition for Mr. Harris. Mr. Maurer began researching the late officer after consolidation of the Borough and Township police departments last year. There is a monument to fallen Township policeman Billie Ellis, who died in the line of duty in 1955, outside the Municipal Building. Mr. Maurer, knowing of Mr. Harris’s actions, thought the Borough officer deserved the same recognition.
Newspaper accounts reveal that three men from the Bronx, in Princeton to visit a relative, were involved in the incident after one of them, 19-year-old Norman L. Cross, made unwelcome advances to a woman in the club. Mr. Cross threatened to kill the woman and shoot up the club when Mr. Harris intervened and was killed. The case was tried in Mercer County court, and Mr. Cross was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 20 to 30 years in prison. His brother Milton Cross, 20, was convicted of manslaughter and got eight to ten years. The third man, Earl Patterson, was acquitted.
Mr. Harris had been on the Princeton Auxiliary Police before joining the Borough force, serving just over two years as an officer before his death. He left behind a wife, Florence, and two small daughters, three-year-old Florence and six-year-old Monetta. Both were on hand, along with children, grandchildren, a sister, a cousin, and other relatives, to hear Mayor Lempert read the proclamation.
“Whereas, Officer Harris has been honored by having his name placed on the National Law Enforcement Memorial in Washington, D.C. among the names of officers from all over the United States who have made the ultimate sacrifice for the safety and well-being of others,” a section of the proclamation reads, “Now, therefore, I, Liz Lempert, Mayor of Princeton, and on behalf of Princeton Council, do hereby proclaim February 2, 2014 as Officer Walter Harris Day.”
“We felt it was important as we came together as one agency to honor any officers who fell in the line of duty,” Mr. Maurer said earlier in the day. “Fortunately, we have had only two, and they both deserve to be recognized.”
Mr. Maurer and Mr. King are planning to honor Mr. Harris further, along with Billie Ellis, when they ride in the Police Unity Tour to Washington, D.C. in May.