June 17, 2020

Sutter, Black Leaders Discuss Racism, Justice, Equity At PCDO Forum

By Donald Gilpin

At this “incredibly consequential moment,” “such a difficult time,” “a tipping point,” as various panelists described it, three African American leaders joined Princeton Police Chief Nick Sutter virtually on Sunday, June 14 for a wide-ranging “critical discussion on the state of racism, justice, and equity in our town and throughout the country.”

In an online forum sponsored by the Princeton Community Democratic Organization (PCDO), Congresswoman Bonnie Watson Coleman, New Jersey Policy Perspective (NJPP) President Brandon McKoy, and former Princeton mayor and current Princeton Board of Education Vice President Michele Tuck-Ponder as moderator, along with Sutter, reflected on the current climate of social and racial upheaval, pandemic crisis, and economic distress.

“We’re at a different point right now,” said Watson Coleman, calling for less delay and more action in addressing inequities caused by systemic racism. She noted the force and frustrations of protests currently taking place throughout the area and the nation.  “I don’t think this is the same kind of reaction as in the past.  We’re at a tipping point now where it’s bubbling over and good people are standing up. We have to make the most of it. We’ve got people all over the world who are protesting with us. It’s healthy.”

Commenting on proposals for a national reconciliation commission on slavery and racism, she continued, “I’m OK with studying and discussing and having kumbaya moments and things of that nature, but I also know that we need to get about the work. I don’t think that window stays open very long. We’re at a point where we need to re-imagine who we are and how we’re going to move forward and do it.”

Watson Coleman called for reforms to help bring police accountability, as well as housing, jobs, education, and health care to those most in need. “If it takes a resolution and healing, that’s fine, but let us be in parallel action in getting things done, changing policies, changing laws, enforcing them, putting our money where it needs to go and ensuring that there’s sustainability for all families,” she said.

Princeton Mayor Liz Lempert, who, along with the Princeton Council and the Princeton Police Department, has
committed to reviewing policies, engaging the community in their findings, and working towards implementing reforms, delivered opening remarks to set the context of the discussion.

“We know there’s a sickness in this country, and to this day it causes pain and anguish and frustration and death at the hands of the state,” she said. “And in a democracy, we are all the state. Each of us has a role to play here as individuals, as members of the community, and as democrats. I hope we can rise to the current moment so we can create a better and fairer Princeton and a better and fairer New Jersey, one in which all citizens can succeed and be healthy.”

Noting the effects of diversity on policing, Sutter discussed his career as a police officer and the limitations of his perspective as a white male trying to understand the anguish of members of the black community.  “I entered policing in Princeton right on the heels of the Rodney King assault in Los Angeles.  I remember as a young officer being very confused after my interaction with officers about how communities around the country, including LA, could have such adversarial relationships with the police. I didn’t have the capacity at the time to understand it because that wasn’t my experience, but it didn’t take long in my policing career to understand why that was, especially in minority communities that had very different relationships with the police than what I had had.”

Sutter went on to describe his experience up to the present. “Over the next 25 years I did a large amount of listening and learning through interactions with members of the community,” he said. “I’ve learned why they thought poorly of police officers in general and I vowed to make some sort of change in that throughout my career.”

Sutter went on to voice frustrations similar to those voiced widely throughout the country in recent days. “The sad part is that I entered policing on the heels of the Rodney King incident and 25 years later I sit before you discussing the same topics,” he said.  “That’s a failure. I’m here to acknowledge that failure and to tell you I have lots of learning and listening to do. That’s one of my major roles right now: listening, learning, trying to form the partnerships where we can engage and have hope that we can make things better moving forward.”

As the forum continued, Sutter addressed directly the question of police accountability.   “Removing problem police officers is not always easy  — not ever easy,” he said. “This is an area where progress is absolutely needed. If we are to rise above the problems we have now, we as a law enforcement culture have to acknowledge and remove those who shouldn’t be in our ranks. We don’t want that type of people among us.” He emphasized the necessity for police leaders and police unions to support reforms and increased accountability for officers. 

Sutter noted that civilian review boards for police departments were likely to be implemented soon in New Jersey. He urged that they be implemented at the state level with consistency throughout the state, and he expressed optimism that they would enhance community involvement and engagement. 

He warned of complications and probable opposition from police unions, but stated that civilian review boards would be “a step in the right direction. If implemented properly, they would allow the community to have more trust and legitimize what we do by their having a say in how our ranks are policed.”

On the issue of qualified immunity for police officers as a shield for personal liability in cases alleging use of excessive force, a concern addressed in an omnibus criminal justice bill co-sponsored in Congress by Watson Coleman, Sutter noted, “There’s room to move here and to make progress,” and stated “accountability is the No. 1 issue,” but refrained from directly supporting  the elimination of qualified police immunity.

He agreed with Watson Coleman’s statement that “People who do bad things need to experience dire consequences,” and he noted the need for more effective processes to remove officers who engage in bad conduct.

McKoy, president of the Trenton-based “think and do tank” NJPP since February 2019, emphasized the severity of the three crises converging — COVID-19, the faltering economy, and the “crisis of morality and racism that has been roiling the streets of the country” — and the decisions and policies that have worsened inequality.

“We must remember that the economy is people and we can’t keep on leaving or pushing people behind,” he said. He urged the need for making better decisions on the budget, “a moral document”; on creating a fairer tax code “that recognizes extreme disparities in wealth”; and on making investments in affordable housing, public transportation, health care, and more. 

Citing a lack of political will and political honesty, McKoy urged listeners to get involved and help to achieve reforms. “These things will not happen if the residents of this state do not make their voices heard, do not make it clear that these are the priorities that they want to see implemented and that they are tired of the excuses that have prevented these from being implemented in the past,” he said.  “Being really aggressive and engaging the political system through the voting booth is necessary and following up with representatives and asking them what they are doing to respond to this moment.”

Expressing her frustration at the lack of progress towards racial equality, Tuck-Ponder stated, “Those who don’t know their history are destined to repeat it, and we must not know our history because we keep doing this over and over and over again.”

She emphasized the brutality of slavery and its aftermath and the brutality that persists. “The murder of Mr. Floyd was a continuation of that whole practice of devaluing the lives of black people,” she continued.  “At some point we need to have a reckoning as a country, and people need to see it straight up and understand how we got from there to here.”

Watson Coleman noted, “This is a moral moment that’s so comprehensive. It has ripped racism wide open, blatantly in your face. And it’s done in such a way that it has stunned white people, African Americans, and other folks. The persistence of the protesting suggests that we’re at a new juncture, a tipping point, and we need to be dealing with the systems that created these inequities.”