June 17, 2020

Noting Ways to Reduce “Likelihood of Catastrophic Incidents” in Princeton

To the Editor:

When the last banner will have come down from the protests prompted by the sadistic and public murder of George Floyd, communities across the country will need to take a critical look at their policing practices. Princeton is no exception.  Our demographic make-up and political leanings are not that dissimilar to Minneapolis.  That city has a population 15 times the size of ours and, therefore, presents many more opportunities than we do for interactions between police and its minority population.  That we have not experienced the kind of traumatic incidents the nation witnessed last month is simply a manifestation of the laws of probability.  The more these encounters take place, the more likely it is that these sorts of tragic incidents will occur.  The fact is few, if any, of us here in Princeton even today have cared to ask how the police in our town have treated our black residents. At some point, the laws of probability will catch up with us unless we get genuinely interested and involved with how we choose to police our community.

In the short term, the surest way to reduce the likelihood of catastrophic incidents involving police and the black community is to simply reduce the number of unnecessary interactions between the police and the public at large. Here in Princeton, traffic stops and nuisance calls are two areas in which we can effectuate change immediately. 

Do we really need cops staking out motorists on Mountain Avenue to make our streets safer?  Wouldn’t speed radars and cameras be in fact more effective at deterring aggressive driving?  Maybe we should impose higher summons to reflect the income levels here in town. Even better, let’s make a portion of the summons means-based. 

Do we really need to send a gun-toting police officer to our neighbor’s home because their lawnmower disturbed our Sunday afternoon meditation? In a town not known for its swelling NRA ranks, wouldn’t an unarmed community mediator be better placed to handle these nuisance issues?

Since moving to Princeton in 2011, I have had five direct encounters with our local police. Two were traffic stops, three were in my home at the behest of neighbors. None of these encounters was necessary and none was friendly or cordial. In fact, they were all tense and could have easily escalated. Having lived 25 years in Brooklyn, I am fortunately well versed in the art of de-escalating potential police confrontation. 

Long term, we need to invest the time and money to devise the appropriate prescriptions to reduce the exposure of our black residents and, for that matter, that of all our residents, to incidents of police abuse. Until then, the next time I am caught flying down Mountain Avenue at 35 miles an hour, please mail me my $1,500 summons. I may be dining on Spam for the rest of the year but, at least, I will live to tell you about it.

Romel Salam
Lambert Drive