PRINCETON: Police chief wants to increase department’s ‘positive footprint’ in the community

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Princeton Police Chief Nicholas Sutter.

By Philip Sean Curran, Staff Writer
Police Chief Nicholas K. Sutter said Monday that law enforcement is dealing with a “crisis” that will require the Princeton Police Department to have more “positive contacts” or interactions with the public apart from the regular enforcement the department does daily.
“I see us increasing our … positive footprint in the community almost on an individual basis,” he told Mayor Liz Lempert and the Princeton Council at their meeting. He said positive encounters with people are “equally important” as when officers enforce the law.
Chief Sutter finds himself and law enforcement more broadly working in a tense environment amid high-profile police shootings of black men and the murders and shootings of police officers in Dallas, Texas, and Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
His comments come before a scheduled community conversation — planned for Wednesday at John Witherspoon Middle School — for the public to be able to discuss those issues, an event that he plans to attend. They also come two weeks after some council members expressed concern about racial disparities in police arrests and called for police to stop doing random license plate checks of motor vehicles.
For nearly 20 minutes before council, Chief Sutter stressed the value of police having positive dealings with the community.
“There’s got to be a fabric within the department of increasing those positive contacts,” he said. “We’ve done it already, we’ve been pushing toward this for quite some time.”
He said those interactions happen constantly within Princeton, although with little fanfare. He said he thinks it would help if more attention was focused on them, and cited the need for the department, internally, to be able to track when officers have those positive encounters.
Town officials have talked of the department strengthening relations with the public through community policing. A new patrol plan of the central business district, for example, involves police introducing themselves to merchants and residents, sharing their business cards and being a point of contact.
“Community policing is not a program or a fad or, again, a program to be done by a segment of the Police Department,” he said. “It should be the fabric of the philosophy of the Police Department, which I feel that it is.”
Mayor Lempert, addressing reporters at her press conference earlier in the day, said the department has had “always” had a focus on community policing. Yet in terms of what things police might do differently, she said police would “not necessarily” stop random license plate checks. She also backed continued enforcement of speeding, something residents have ranked as their priority.
“We all spend different amounts of our … time on different activities. So it’s really going to be where people’s resources are being allocated and what they’re being asked to do,” she said.
“We want more police one-on-one interactions,” Council President Lance Liverman said at the same press conference.
One Princeton official said on a condition of anonymity this week that the town is not de-emphasizing the traditional role of police enforcing the law, but rather wants officers to engage more in community relations.
In his remarks, Chief Sutter recalled how, as child, he experienced both ends of dealing with police. He remembered being scared in the back seat of his father’s car when police pulled them over. On the other hand, he cited how his house was burglarized and an officer spent two hours helping him with his geometry homework.Yet in some ways, Chief Sutter sees police dealing with perceptions people have about law enforcement.
“A lot of the things we’re dealing with are real and a lot of perceptions, perceptions of the police, perceptions of the community, perceptions from both sides,” he said.
“I can appear before groups and speak to groups and profess all these things and tell people what we’re doing. And I found that people aren’t going to believe it until they experience it for themselves, some people — some people especially that don’t have trust of the police or perceive us to be unjust or the system to be unjust.” 