March 28, 2018

Chief Sutter Speaks To Council About Incident at Panera

By Anne Levin

With the New Jersey Attorney General’s office in charge of investigating the shooting at the Panera Bread restaurant on Nassau Street last week, Princeton Police Chief Nick Sutter is limited in how much he can share about the incident until the investigation is completed. But Sutter wants to keep the public as informed as he can about the events surrounding the death of 56-year-old Scott Mielentz, who was fatally shot after an armed standoff involving local, county, and state police; the FBI; and Princeton University police.

Sutter read a statement at the Monday, March 26 meeting of Princeton Council. “I am confident that we did everything possible to help the person involved in this incident,” he said. “Some of our officers placed themselves directly in harm’s way to talk and comfort him throughout the incident. I also know that the process of healing will take time for members of our community and police department. They should all know that we are all here to support them through the process.”

The Attorney General’s office
investigates when a county or state officer uses deadly force in an incident, Sutter said, leading to the assumption that a local officer was not the one who fired the fatal shot.

A former IT worker, Mielentz is said to have suffered from medical, psychological, and financial problems. The Lawrenceville resident entered the restaurant shortly after 10 a.m. on Tuesday, March 20, armed with a gun. Customers and employees were able to flee the building through a back door, and police secured the perimeter. Sutter said that the standoff lasted from 10:26 a.m. until just after 3 p.m. “I can tell you we were involved in wholehearted life-saving efforts the entire time,” he said in response to a question from Councilwoman Heather Howard. “We were dealing with a person in crisis.”

Earlier on Monday, Municipal Administrator Marc Dashield told reporters that Princeton’s health department had concluded its inspection of the restaurant, and it was cleared to re-open. As of Tuesday morning, it was still closed “due to circumstances beyond our control,” according to a recorded phone message thanking the public for their patience. Following the March for Our Lives that took place in Hinds Plaza on Saturday, several marchers placed their signs advocating gun control on the papered-over windows of the restaurant.

Sutter said that the police are prepared for such situations. “We train, create policy, and train some more so that we can effectively operate through critical situations,” he said. “We just don’t know until faced with a critical situation how effective these preparations are. I saw these preparations at work last week, and I could not be more proud of the way our officers performed. They were professional, courageous, selfless, and most of all compassionate. Every move and decision that was made was done in order to save lives and protect the public. They did absolutely everything we expect from them and more.”

Sutter also thanked the state police, FBI, Mercer County Sheriff’s and Prosecutor’s offices, and Princeton University officers for their assistance. “I also want to thank members of the community, municipality, and governing body for the support you have given to all those affected,” he said. “Your support will be vital as the healing process continues.”

Councilwoman Leticia Fraga asked Sutter if counseling was available for Panera Bread employees. “We mandate it for our officers,” he said. “That night, I spoke to Panera corporate and they were already providing it. It’s so important.”

Sutter said it would be “at least a month or more” before the investigation into the incident is completed.