February 10, 2016

Unpaid Parking Tickets Lead to Controversy

A Princeton University professor stopped by local police for speeding last Saturday and arrested due to an active warrant for three-year-old unpaid parking tickets took to social media this week to say she was treated “inappropriately and disproportionately. The fact of my blackness is not incidental to this matter,” she posted on Facebook.

Princeton Police Chief Nicholas Sutter said Monday that he has opened an investigation into the incident involving Imani Perry, theКUniversity’s Hughes-Rogers Professor of African American Studies, and has asked the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office to assist. The incident has attracted national attention.

According to Mr. Sutter, Ms. Perry was driving at 67 miles per hour on Mercer Street, a 45-mile-per-hour zone, when she was pulled over by officers. When it was determined that she had unpaid parking tickets, the officers followed procedure “per policy and state law,” he said, handcuffed her and took her into custody. On Twitter, Ms. Perry wrote that the officers would not allow her to make a phone call until after her arrest, and said she was given a body search and then handcuffed to a table at police headquarters before being released.

“The response I have received since sharing my story has been overwhelmingly caring and thoughtful,” she wrote Monday on Facebook. “Many people are vigilant and impassioned these days regarding policing. This is a direct result of the social movement that has emerged over the last several years. That is good.”

Ms. Perry continued, “And it personally feels wonderful to be so supported. However, there are quite a few people who seem upset that I received support. Mostly they are suggesting that I am playing ‘innocent’ when I am ‘guilty.’ What they fail to understand is that I did not purport to be without fault. Now, make no mistake, I do not believe I did anything wrong. But even if I did, my position holds.” She goes on to say she was treated unfairly.

“Й We already know it IS the standard protocol for people in poor Black, Indigenous, and Latino communities to experience disproportionate police surveillance, harassment, violence, and punishment. That is the graver injustice. I’m asking you to understand that my experience, and my feelings, are directly and intimately tied to that larger truth. We unquestionably have a serious problem with policing in this society.”

Mr. Sutter addressed the incident at the Princeton Council meeting Monday night, stressing the police department’s efforts to be transparent and gain public trust. He called the issue one of “perception and policy,” and said, “Neither I nor the department are taking a defensive stance on this. Quite the opposite. There will be discussion. The stance I’m taking is that we’re going to get better at listening to these perceptions.”

University President Christopher Eisgruber voiced his concerns Tuesday in a letter to the editor of The Daily Princetonian newspaper. “Many on our campus and around the country have expressed understandable concern about the arrest this past weekend of Professor Imani Perry, who is a respected scholar and beloved teacher at this University,” he wrote. “They have been shocked that such an arrest could result from unpaid parking tickets. They have also been distressed about specific aspects of the arrest, including the fact that a pat-down was performed by a male officer and that Professor Perry was handcuffed to a desk after her arrest.

“I share these concerns,” Mr. Eisgruber continued. “My colleagues and I in the University administration were in touch with Professor Perry as soon as we learned of the incident and we contacted town officials about our concerns over the weekend. The town officials responded rapidly and initiated an investigation that they have assured us will be thorough and fair. We welcome an investigation not only of the treatment of Professor Perry, but of the underlying policies, practices, and protocols that were applied.”

Mr. Sutter did not identify Ms. Perry by name at the Council meeting. But at Mayor Liz Lempert’s regular pre-Council-meeting press conference earlier in the day, he did identify her. He said there is a dash-camera video of the incident, but he wants to discuss it with her to make sure she is in agreement with it being made public. “It is a very, very sensitive and charged issue,” he said. “I want to make sure the community has our trust.”

The patting down and handcuffing is “standard procedure,” Mr. Sutter said, and a state law. Ms. Perry took issue with the fact that though there was a male and female officer present, she was patted down by the male officer.

Regarding the arrest for unpaid parking tickets, Ms. Lempert said, “I was shocked that unpaid parking tickets would lead to an arrest.” At the Council meeting, Councilwoman Jenny Crumiller commented, “Maybe we as a Council can change the state law so people don’t get arrested for parking tickets.” Mr. Sutter responded, “That’s part of the conversation.”

Police have charged Ms. Perry with speeding and driving on suspended privileges. She is scheduled to appear February 23 in Princeton Municipal Court. Efforts to reach her were unsuccessful at press time.