PRINCETON: Racial overtones injected into traffic stop, arrest of university professor (updated and with video)

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By Philip Sean Curran, Staff Writer
Princeton police have asked the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office to investigate their handling of a traffic stop and subsequent arrest Saturday morning of a black Princeton University professor, a fierce critic of law enforcement who has injected race into a matter that has attracted the attention of Nassau Hall and municipal officials.
Imani Perry, a professor of African American studies, allegedly was traveling 67 mph on Mercer Road in a 45 mph zone when she was stopped by a white male officer, police Chief Nicholas K. Sutter told reporters Monday. A check by the officer found that a warrant, issued in March 2013, had been issued for her arrest because of two unpaid parking tickets out of Princeton, he said.
Law enforcement and legal experts said Monday the officer had zero discretion to ignore the warrant, and subsequently arrested her, took her to the police headquarters, where she was processed and released. Police have charged her with speeding and driving with suspended driving privileges, with Ms. Perry scheduled to appear Feb.23 in Princeton Municipal Court.
After her arrest, she took to social media to write about her experience. In a lengthy essay on Facebook, she said “police treated me inappropriately and disproportionately. The fact of my blackness is not incidental to this matter.”
“Some critics have said that I should have expected what I received. But if it is the standard protocol in an affluent suburb to disallow a member of the community to make a call before an arrest (simply to inform someone of her arrest) and if it is the protocol to have male officers to pat down the bodies of women, and if it is the norm to handcuff someone to a table for failing to pay a parking ticket, we have a serious problem with policing in the society,” she wrote.
“I cannot ever say definitively that this specific mistreatment was a result of race. But I can say that what I experienced was far more likely because my skin is a deep brown, my nose is round and my hair is coily,” she wrote. “And given the accumulation of police violence against black people in this society, my fear at being stopped and arrested as a black woman was warranted and even reasonable.”
But Chief Sutter said he had reviewed the stop and said the officer, identified in police records as Patrolman Michael Schubert, “did everything according to policy.”
He said anyone that police arrest, except in some limited cases, is handcuffed to protect the safety of the officer. Based on department policy, the officer does not have discretion on “who gets handcuffed and who doesn’t.”
“If you’re arrested, you’re handcuffed, you’re processed in the same way, you’re treated in the exact same way,” he said.
Chief Sutter said he learned of the matter after either Ms. Perry or a colleague of her’s filed a complaint with the university Department of Public Safety.
In response to the incident, Princeton Councilwoman Jenny Crumiller suggested having an external review of the matter in addition to an internal one. Councilwoman Heather H. Howard, also a Princeton University employee who said Monday she does not know Ms. Perry, backed that idea. But ultimately Chief Sutter decided to have another entity probe the matter.
Chief Sutter said the department “proactively” asked the Prosecutor’s Office to get involved. “Not that our investigation wouldn’t be very thorough and honest and objective,” he said, “but this, I think, garners more public trust.”
He said he also wants the Prosecutor’s Office to look at the department’s policies and get input on them. A spokeswoman for the Prosecutor’s Office could not be reached for comment Monday.
Town administrator Marc D. Dashield said Monday he had looked at the dash cam video of the incident and reviewed the policies for what officers do in arrests. He concluded that “the officer did follow all of our policies and procedure.”
But more broadly, the town plans to look at whether people should be arrested for an unpaid parking ticket in the first place and a warrant issued. Mayor Lempert said she was “shocked” to find out that an unpaid parking ticket can lead to this “cascade of events that ends up with a warrant.”
“No matter how this particular incident, how that investigation goes, I feel that we need to look at that as a council,” she said. “We need to have a better understanding if that’s a result of our own policies and ordinances, our own actions by our municipal court or if it’s something at a state level.”
The issue attracted the attention of Nassau Hall, which had been the target of protests last November by black students. Mayor Lempert said university President Christopher L. Eisgruber and director of regional and community affairs Kristin S. Appelget had called her separately about it over the weekend.
She said Mr. Eisgruber had offered “his help” and wanted to make sure she knew about the matter. She said she did not think his call represented any interference on his part.
“He wasn’t calling to interfere at all,” she said.
University vice president and secretary Robert K. Durkee said Monday that the school contacted Mayor Lempert to express “our concern” about the matter and the school’s hope “that there would be an investigation.”
“And she told us that there would be,” he said.
Ms. Perry has been outspoken on race, at one point in 2014 saying “law enforcement is an engine of anti-black racism in this country.”
In her Facebook essay, Ms. Perry did not indicate how fast she was traveling or the fact that she was stopped for speeding or that she had a suspended driver’s license. She wrote that she was arrested for a “three-year-old” traffic ticket, but police said there were two tickets involved.
That is a critical difference. In New Jersey, a warrant cannot be issued for just one unpaid parking ticket, said state Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D-15), also the Princeton municipal prosecutor, on Monday. Also, she would have received notices from the municipal court.
“So the question is, yes, do cops have better things to do with their time than chase after violators of parking tickets? Absolutely,” he said. “But then the question is what do you do with scofflaw offenders that don’t pay their parking tickets?”
As for the officer involved in the traffic stop, he has not been put on desk duty pending the outcome of the investigation.
“There’s no implication from my standpoint or anybody’s standpoint here that this officer acted inappropriately,” Chief Sutter said.

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