Police Department Reports Progress, Building Trust Amidst Community Concerns
By Donald Gilpin
In the midst of ongoing national protests and debate over policing, Princeton Police Department (PPD) Captain Chris Morgan presented the 2019 Annual Police Department Report to the Princeton Council last week.
“We are absolutely aware of a lot of the concerns out there,” said Morgan in describing the 86-page report as “the most comprehensive we have put together since consolidation.” He continued, “We are committed to rebuilding trust within the community. We believe community engagement is important and being transparent with this information. We’re always looking for ways to better serve the community.”
A statement by PPD Chief Nick Sutter, written in June after George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis during a police arrest, accompanied the report and emphasized the importance of trust and relationship-building between the police and the community.
“Our officers are strongly aware of how this event will erode the trust of our citizens in police officers throughout our country,” Sutter wrote. He noted that the actions of the police officer kneeling on Floyd’s neck “violates every fundamental value we as police officers hold dear to our hearts. We grieve along with our citizens.”
He continued, “This is particularly hurtful to me, as I know how hard our officers in Princeton have worked to build trust in our community. I know how our officers personally invest in these relationships with our community and cherish them like personal friendships.”
He noted that the PPD had received many questions about its approach to issues such as the use of force and racial/ethnic bias. “I can say without hesitation that our department has proactively been at the forefront of these issues for many years,” he wrote. “I also know the proof is in our actions, not our claims.”
Commenting on the report at the August 10 Council meeting, Morgan pointed out that the PPD had used force in only five incidents in 2019, with ten officers using force on five individuals, “the majority dealing with people in crisis.” He noted that the individuals were most often in an agitated mental state and resisting the police officers. Typically, he said, the officers were using a low level of force to move the resisting individuals into a first aid vehicle. All use-of-force incidents, Morgan added, are subject to several levels of review and must be reported directly to the state.
In an August 17 email, Sutter pointed out that the PPD takes a number of steps in analyzing data and monitoring the conduct of officers. “I would also highlight the reviews we conduct on every use-of-force incident and highlight the fact that our use-of-force incidents are comprised of minor physical contact,” he said. “The small number of force incidents indicates the success our de-escalation tactics are having in situations that may otherwise result in force.”
In his comments Sutter noted the PPD’s focus on training, particularly in de-escalation tactics. “When we do have to use force, we review the actions through a five-tier process,” he said. “We report the use of force monthly to our governing body and have our policies and statistics placed on our website for public review. We also review officer-citizen interactions regularly with regard to race and ethnicity and we place these statistics on our website (princetonnj.gov).”
In his June statement, Sutter also said that the tragic interactions between police and citizens in Minnesota were most likely the result of police failures in recruitment, organizational culture, training, policy, or oversight. “In our department we have worked incredibly hard at recruiting the highest caliber officers that possess a strong moral fabric,” he wrote. “We have built a diverse department that reflects the community we serve. We have created a culture that demands integrity and does not tolerate misconduct. We know that the misconduct of one tarnishes the entire profession and we will not stand for it amongst our ranks.”
Sutter and Morgan both mentioned the PPD’s early warning system, a management tool that tracks officers’ conduct, and the department’s risk assessment committee, that tracks the racial and ethnic breakdown of officers’ activity, as important policies to enhance internal accountability.
In the short-term, Sutter noted in Monday’s email, the department’s biggest current issue is the implementation of the PPD body camera program. “This is a very important step in our history and will serve to increase public trust in policing in our community,” he said.
The entire department is expected to be equipped with body-worn cameras by the end of the summer. “This has been a deliberate and public process that will add another layer of public transparency to our actions,” he added.
In response to a question from Mayor Liz Lempert at last week’s Council meeting, Morgan noted that over the last six months there has been a surge in numbers of Princeton residents applying for gun permits, a reflection of a national trend. “We’ve seen that trend here, and it’s been a significant increase,” Morgan said. “Firearm applications started to skyrocket in March, with 31 last year, and 125 so far this year.”
Morgan explained that individuals apply for a firearm permit online, then a local detective is assigned to do a background investigation. A recommendation to either issue a permit or deny it follows. Then there is a review and a determination by the chief of police. If the application is denied the applicant may appeal the decision to the state.
“While we really don’t have any data locally to account for it,” Sutter stated, “we are left to assume that national issues are leading to the increase, especially because most people are indicating they are obtaining firearms for personal and home defense.”
In his Monday email Sutter also commented on the national conversation about defunding police departments. He suggested that a more legitimate argument could be made for reallocating police resources.
“The more important conversation surrounds services that the police are providing that can be better provided by experts in other fields,” he said. “A perfect example is in the area of mental health. We respond repeatedly to the same people who are suffering and in a mental health crisis.”
He continued, “We do not have the resources to provide follow-up care that is necessary to help people in these situations, and often we are called back when a person’s condition has deteriorated to a point where they are a danger for themselves or someone else. This is one example where police resources can be reallocated in a way to better serve this population.”