March 5, 2014

Acting Chief of Police Nick Sutter Likely to Be Appointed New Chief

Last year was enormously eventful for the Princeton Police Department. 2013 began with consolidation of the Borough and the Township police departments. 

Then Chief David Dudeck retired amidst allegations of of harassment and discrimination and a civil suit by seven police officers against him and the municipality; new immigration laws came down from the Federal Government; and the department was scrutinized in December by the Rodgers Group at the culmination of a year-long accreditation process.

Now, one of the Rodgers Group recommendations is about to be realized as Princeton Council readies to appoint a new chief of police. Mayor Lempert has said that the announcement of a new chief would likely be be made this month.

Capt. Nicholas K. Sutter, a police officer for almost two decades, appears to be a shoo-in for the job. He served with the Borough of Princeton before consolidation and he has been leading the department as acting chief since last February’s departure of former Chief Dudeck.

The mayor has frequently commended Mr. Sutter in his role as acting chief.

Asked for comment on the most challenging aspects of his job as acting chief over the past year or so, Mr. Sutter said: “I would say the complete operational integration of both departments and sorting through the myriad of issues that went along with such a huge project was definitely the biggest challenge.

“I have described the consolidation of the two previous Princeton Police Departments as two families coming together as one. While many families share many things in common they each have their own traditions, customs, values, and histories that are not easily changed or forgotten. A police department is not unlike a family with all the dynamics that accompany those relationships. The success of this organization rests in the immersion of these former customs and traditions of the former departments into the identity and culture of our new department.”

But what was challenging, said Mr. Sutter, has also proved rewarding as he has witnessed the evolution of a single department as new relationships have formed.

The acting chief has little time for those who forecast disaster and claim that the department was dysfunctional and that the two police departments would never get along. “I’m here to say that it did work, we are harmonizing extremely well together and we are looking forward to a successful future,” said Mr. Sutter. The challenges of consolidation and the issues that came along with it, have resulted in a much stronger police department, he said.

Rodgers’ Recommendation

According to Princeton Administrator Robert W. Bruschi, the Rodgers Report was a factor in the decision to appoint a new chief from within the department. For Police Commissioner Heather Howard, the Rodgers Group was an important factor pointing to the selection from within the department and with some urgency too.

Last December, the Rodgers Group, a public safety consulting firm hired to report on the health and culture of the Princeton Police Department, urged the municipality to make hiring a permanent leader for the police department a top priority.

Furthermore, the report recommended that the town promote a chief from within departmental ranks. “The department has coalesced around its current leadership and interjecting an outside public safety director would upset the apple cart, and not add any value to the equation,” said Mr. Rodgers, adding that stability of leadership would be crucial to the successful transformation of the post-consolidation merger of the Borough and Township police departments and he praised Mr. Sutter in his role as acting chief.

“Their findings were informed by anonymous surveys of all members of the force, in addition to many focus groups with employees and outside community members and stakeholders,” said Ms. Howard, adding that “personally [I] have heard tremendous feedback and support from the public for the new department and its current leadership.”

Mr. Sutter’s years as a second in command and full year leading the newly formed department make him a valuable asset, said Mr. Bruschi, adding that “His attitude and his dedication are helping to lead our department to becoming a progressive department with an emphasis on the community policing. Many departments say they have adopted that policy but when it comes down to it I would put our activities and accomplishments up against any department.”

“Captain Sutter has done a tremendous job over the last year,” agreed Ms. Howard, citing the acting chief’s melding of the two distinct Borough and Township cultures, introduction of new community policing and traffic bureau services, and doing more with less to protect the public through administrative efficiencies and smart management. He has also strengthened relations with the community, including for example, specific initiatives with the immigrant community, said Ms. Howard. “We are very fortunate to have his leadership.”

More than anyone perhaps, Bob Bruschi is well-placed to speak about the acting chief. Since Mr. Bruschi was appointed “appropriate authority” for police oversight, he has met with Capt. Sutter almost daily. “If we don’t have a sit down we almost always have a phone call,” he said.

Still, the dysfunctional department stigma is not an easy one to shake off.

Asked what safeguards have been put into place to make sure there will be no recurrence of events such as those leading to the lawsuit against former Chief Dudeck, Mr. Bruschi commented that “more than policies, which are already in place, what was really needed was the feeling in members of the department that they could come forward to speak about unresolved issues. Captain Sutter is extremely approachable and I’ve made it clear to the PBA as well as at the staff meetings that I’ve attended that any issue or concern that they feel can’t be addressed within the department or isn’t being addressed should come to me,” he said.

Ms. Howard pointed to a number of reforms to “improve the functioning of the department.” She cited, for example, the adoption of best practices and the appointment of the town administrator as the appropriate authority, a departure from past practice, as well as the development of a strategic plan for the department. “Captain Sutter has shown tremendous leadership over the past year and has instituted regular meetings with his leadership and the broader department to improve communication within the department,” she said.

The appointment will be a matter for the entire council.