June 10, 2020

Policing Issues Take Precedence At Council Meeting

By Anne Levin

Issues of race and law enforcement were the focus of Princeton Council’s virtual meeting Monday evening, June 8.

The governing body passed a resolution declaring racism a public health crisis, calling for an assessment of policy and procedures “to ensure racial equity is a core element of all municipal departments,” the resolution reads, among other objectives.

Commenting via emails that were read aloud, numerous members of the public called for defunding the local police force and redirecting money to affordable housing, mental health, human services, and other social programs. Delivering his regular report on Princeton Police Department activities, Chief Nicholas Sutter gave an emotional account of how the May 25 killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer has affected him and the department, which he said has worked since 2013 to be diverse, transparent, and engaged in the community.

Responding to the public comments urging defunding the police, Councilman Dwaine Williamson expressed frustration. “Please don’t tell me you’re doing me a favor as a black man by advocating for something that will only play into the hands of people against Black Lives Matter,” he said. “Let’s talk about real progress and real things we can do to make our society better. It’s not doing me or 40 million black Americans a favor.” Later in the meeting, Williamson apologized for his heated response. “My intent was not to insult. I look forward to progressive and respectful dialogue where I don’t use words like ‘ridiculous’ and my emotions don’t come out,” he said.

Sutter said he first heard about the killing of George Floyd from his 16-year-old son. “He grew up being told that policing was righteous, just, and honorable,” Sutter said. “I still feel that way. But I saw on his face that night that he may have thought I’d been lying to him, or just giving him my perspective on policing. But he saw what I saw — a police officer commit murder. And it doesn’t even relate to my understanding of policing. It’s not even policing. It’s murder.”

Having graduated from the police academy 25 years ago, “on the heels of the Rodney King tragedy,” Sutter said, “I was actually part of what was considered reformed policing. I thought I’d be part of a new day in policing where these issues were being addressed with community partnerships and new policing. And 25 years later, I’m here talking about the same issues. It is disheartening, it is upsetting, but I have to remain hopeful that the officers we are hiring now are going to make positive change together.”

Sutter acknowledged the importance of listening. “I want the community to know they will be heard,” he said. “I’ve learned about listening and keeping an open mind. More now than ever, I’m committed to those principles and the department is too. We will not be defensive or argumentative,” but will keep to “constructive, open conversation. I think we’re doing good, but we always have to do better.” He added that he feels strongly that the department has been “on the cutting edge of reform for years. I feel good about that. But I also know that in one incident, it can be undone. And it has, in some ways.”

Regarding the use of force, Sutter said cases are tracked every month, and an early warning system is in place should a problem or trend be detected. While there is some reliance on statistics and data, “I also realize some statistics don’t paint the full picture,” he said. “I need to listen to community members about their neighborhoods.”

Councilwoman Leticia Fraga, who is the police commissioner, said the town’s Civil Rights Commission is planning community dialogues for the near future.

The emailed comments from the public also included several pleas to open Community Pool as soon as possible. Councilman Williamson, who is liaison to the Department of Recreation, said the pool will not open on June 22, as many had hoped. The recreation board is meeting June 18  and may make a recommendation for opening, but it could take as long as a month to make it happen, he said.

Municipal Administrator Marc Dashield reported on the state of the town’s Affordable Housing obligation. A new ordinance and marketing plan will be introduced at the June 15 meeting, with public hearings for both of those measures scheduled for July 9. A number of related ordinances will be introduced at the June 22 meeting, while a spending plan will be considered on July 13. “All of these compliance mechanisms are necessary to give to the court 30 days prior to our hearing, which is August 12,” said Dashield. “It will be jam-packed in the next couple of weeks.”