August 5, 2020

Mayor Lempert, Police Chief Sutter Discuss Policing and Government

By Donald Gilpin

Community policing, public safety, police violence, defunding the police in the context of the fight for Black lives, and hopes for Princeton’s future were all topics up for discussion in a July 26 dialogue between Princeton Mayor Liz Lempert and Princeton Police Chief Nick Sutter. Lempert will be stepping down as mayor at the end of the year after her second term (eight years) in office, and Sutter will retire on October 1 of this year after 25 years of serving the community, the last six as police chief.

In a 90-minute virtual conversation sponsored by the Princeton Civil Rights Commission, moderated by Councilwoman Leticia Fraga, and attended by about 80 participants, Sutter emphasized the importance of change in policing and in the Princeton Police Department (PPD).

“I embrace change,” he said. “Our department and its culture embrace change. More departments nationally should do that. A culture in a police department that embraces and accepts change will be progressive and more successful.”

Sutter commented on the biggest change he has seen during his career in policing. “When I began in policing 25 years ago the police told the public what was good for the community,” he said. “Thankfully what has changed is that we now listen to the community. In Princeton we’ve made an effort to engage the community, to listen and to see what’s needed for the community. We’ve tried to address the expectations, needs, and wants of the community from the community’s perspectives.”

He added that he sees more drastic change coming in the near future, with local police increasingly engaging in conversations with the public, listening, “and making the changes that the community sees the need for.”

Praising the PPD and its chief, Lempert added, “When it’s functioning well, they are an arm of the community. They need to reflect the community’s values.”

A significant change that both Sutter and Lempert emphasized as crucial to future growth and improvement in policing is for police departments to be more thoroughly supported by social services and mental health professionals, with more funding for crisis intervention teams and professional help in responding to individuals who are experiencing crises.

“To flourish as a community we have to take some of that responsibility back upon ourselves, not just think of the police as the answer to that, but think of it more holistically,” Lempert said. “We need to have a broader view and not rely on the police to solve all the problems in the world. We have to make sure we’re making important investments across the board. Affordable housing is one crucial piece to help make fundamental changes for the better.”

Sutter noted that current call to “defund the police” means different things to different people but that in general he does not see defunding the police as a legitimate proposal. “I have no good alternatives to answering 911 calls,” he said, and stated that a more legitimate discussion would focus on reallocating resources to meet needs.

“We have to engage in crisis intervention teams,” he said. “These are resources that we need to help our citizens.”

He explained some of the kinds of support the police need. “Police are not trained to help people with mental health problems,” he said. “We’re first responders. We try to get someone help then we move on, and that’s not solving the problem. We need mental health experts who are second responders. We need a concept of second responders for family crises, mental health crises, juvenile crises. This is an idea for real change, for something beneficial for the community.”

Sutter noted that the problem of homelessness is another example of an area where the police need help. “We’re limited,” he said. “We need people who are trained with the resources, time, and capacity to give people true help. We respond in emergencies. We’re good in emergencies, but we’re not good in the follow-up. That’s not what we were trained in, not what we’re set up for.”

Lempert agreed, and added that the municipal government is “looking for areas where we can use experts, professionals to support the police and serve the community more effectively.” 

In commenting on her hopes for Princeton during her last five months in office and beyond, Lempert reflected on the challenges posed by the pandemic. “It’s my hope that we get through this difficult period and emerge from it in a way that’s better and more equitable, and that we’re stronger than we were back in February of 2020,” she said.

She continued, “Princeton’s a great place, but there’s also a lot we can improve on. There’s been both a national reckoning and a local one too, and there’s an opportunity for us to come together as a community to help each other through this difficult period. It’s challenging right now, and the next several months to a year are going to be incredibly difficult with the pandemic and its economic and social effects. We have to lean on each other and come together as a community. This is a real test for Princeton, but it’s an amazing community.”

Sutter noted that his biggest hope “comes through the lens of the police department.” He explained, “I’d like to see the department continue to progress and change and get out in front of all this national turmoil and be a leader in transformational change, real change.”

He added, “I’d like to see the department be something that all members of the community feel comfortable with and are proud of, as they feel safe and protected.”