April 9, 2014

A Standing Ovation As Council Appoints Police Chief Sutter

The Princeton Police Department has a new chief. Capt. Nicholas K.Sutter was promoted to the position Monday night after a unanimous vote by Mayor Liz Lempert and members of the Princeton Council. The formal swearing-in ceremony will be held at a later date. 

Mr. Sutter served with the Borough of Princeton before consolidation and has been leading the department as acting chief since last February’s departure of former Chief David J. Dudeck, who went on extended medical leave at the end of February and then retired amidst allegations of harassment and discrimination and a civil suit by seven police officers against him and the municipality.

During that time, Mr. Sutter has been lauded for his leadership of a post-consolidation department as it took shape from the two departments of Princeton Borough and Princeton Township.

His promotion, which comes as no surprise, brings to fruition one of the top recommendations of the Rodgers Group, the public safety consulting firm hired by the municipality post-consolidation to report on the health and culture of Princeton’s police department. The report urged the municipality to find a new chief from within departmental ranks and tapped Mr. Sutter as the likely candidate.

Mr. Sutter, 43, was the only person being considered for the chief’s job. A member of the former Borough Police Department from 1995, he has been commended frequently by Ms. Lempert and members of council for uniting the distinct Borough and Township cultures as well as introducing new community policing and traffic bureau services, doing more with less, and for strengthening relations with the community.

On Monday, Mr. Sutter answered questions from Ms. Lempert and Council members in the final stage toward his promotion. Each question offered the acting chief an opportunity to present the high points of the department’s achievements during the past year. The specters of past chiefs seem to have vanished along with memories of past dysfunction and discord.

After congratulating Mr. Sutter, Police Commissioner Heather Howard asked for comment on community policing. Lance Liverman thanked all of the -officers -attending and spoke of his pride in and respect for the department. “I’ve rarely seen such a cohesive department as this one today, and that has to do with your leadership and the fine officers under you” he said, addressing Mr. Sutter.

Asked about long range planning by Bernie Miller, Mr. Sutter described post-consolidation efficiencies and streamlining. “In the beginning there was not a lot of planning for the future, more concentrating on daily operations, but we had an objective to come together as a department and we did that quickly and efficiently, which proves the value of long-term goal setting.” Strategic planning and goal setting would be a priority going forward.

Jenny Crumiller asked about communication and Mr. Sutter cited improved transparency and the positive relationship between the department and the governing body, especially Public Safety, and the new Ride-Along program.

Jo Butler wanted to know about efforts with respect to gender equality and acceptable behaviors. “That started right back after consolidation with policy initiatives, a mission statement, and core values,” said Mr. Sutter. “We’ve been proactive but it’s an ongoing process, diversity and sensitivity training will continue every year. It boils down to how we conduct ourselves on a day to day basis; respect each other and the community, it’s easy to say but it requires commitment. We don’t take it lightly.”

Outlining his goals at the request of Ms. Lempert, Mr. Sutter described his desire to tap into the department’s “vast amount of professionalism” and the need to encourage pride in accomplishments and recognize excellence.

In the public comment session of the meeting, several people rose to speak on behalf of Mr. Sutter. Ross Wishnick, chair for the Human Services Commission, described him as “compassionate.” Detective Benjamin M. Gering, president of the police union, injected a degree of levity when he testified that the large assembly of uniformed officers had turned out “voluntarily” in support of Mr. Sutter. “We all believe in his mission, his core values. He asks us our opinions and he listens. In the last year, we have become one department and we all support him as Chief of Police.”

A representative of Princeton University’s Department of Public Safety commended Mr. Sutter and the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office head of detectives William Straniero looked around the room at the officers in blue and commented, “This says it all.”

When Ms. Lempert called for a vote, the “ayes” resounded, and the assembly rose for a standing ovation.

An emotional Mr. Sutter described the “large extended family” he had acquired and praised his officers for sticking to the goal of uniting the department. “What had at first seemed like an impossible task turned into a very gratifying one,” he said. “These are the people who got on with the job even at the start when things were tough. That’s when you really learn about character,” he said.