PRINCETON: Community gathering hears from black man and white officer


Princeton Police Chief Nick Sutter and Mayor Liz Lempert at a community meeting in June 2015.

Mayor, police chief speak about harmony for police and community

By Philip Sean Curran, Staff Writer
A community gathering Wednesday night at John Witherspoon Middle School was intended as a dialogue for people to listen and learn as a black man and a white police officer tried to humanize what is happening in the nation at a time of high tensions between those groups.
Tone Bellamy, a former gang member from Trenton turned church elder, spoke first to a crowd estimated at roughly 200 people. He recalled the “historic tensions” between law enforcement and the black community and his experiences as a black man.
“Our pain in this present time is directly connected to the systemic, unjust problems of the past,” he said in recalling the distrust between blacks and police.
He later called himself a “paradox” someone who is pro-cop and anti-police brutality. He said he is learning “to empathize with those who have different narratives than me.”
“I’ve learned that both celebration for the upright officers in America and a fight for justice reform and change where it is needed can indeed coincide,” Mr. Bellamy said.
After he spoke, Princeton Police Officer Billy Kieffer, a six-year-veteran of the force and a third-generation police officer, recalled his experiences of being on patrol the night of the police shootings in Dallas, Texas, earlier this month. A news alert came into his phone that one officer had been slain, something he treated almost matter of factly as just “another officer killed.”
As more details came out about a total of five officers killed in a premeditated, ambush-style attack, “That’s what kind of hit me hard,” he said.
He shared the dangers police face every day, their training teaching that the two circumstances in which they most likely will be shot are during traffic stops and responding to domestic violence calls.
“I mean, it’s not an easy job,” he said, “but it’s one that we did sign up for and we fully understood what we were getting into.”
Both he and Mr. Bellamy met for the first time earlier in the week, spending an hour together talking and finding out that both had lived in Trenton only minutes apart.
The community dialogue was put together by Rabbi Adam Feldman of the Jewish Center and the Rev. Matt Ristuccia of Stone Hill Church.
Rabbi Feldman called it a night of faith.
“And some of us have a religious faith and faith in a higher being,” he said. “But it’s also tonight about having faith in each other, having faith in the system, having faith in our law enforcement, having faith in the representatives of the African-American community, of all people of color, of people of different religious tradition.”
After the officers spoke and took a few questions from Rabbi Feldman, the crowd broke up into small discussion groups led by a different clergy member.
Earlier in the evening, some local officials shared their thoughts amid the turmoil going on nationally.
Princeton police Chief Nicholas K. Sutter, who received applause from the audience when he took the stage, sought to push back against the notion the country is polarized.
“I hear a lot about, what side of the issue are you on? There are no sides, as far as I’m concerned. There’s one side, and that’s us,” he said. “We’re all on the same side. We want peace in our communities, we want harmony in our communities and … we just want a place where we can raise our families and our children free of fear.”
“And if we are to make progress as a country on issues of race and on building communities of trust, it will be the work in places like Princeton, I believe, that will help set the national model,” Mayor Liz Lempert said.
Wednesday’s event took place amid the backdrop of news from Baltimore, Maryland, where authorities there have decided to drop the case against the three remaining city police officers charged in the death of Freddie Gray, who died in police custody last year. It was a development that the Rev. Ristuccia touched on.
“How does that news make an African-American feel? How does that news make an African-American man feel?” he asked. “How does that news make a police officer feel?
Earlier in her introductory comments, Mayor Lempert touched on the shootings — both by police and of police.
“These are difficult and painful events to process, and they can have the terrible power to deepen divisions and sharpen fears,” she said. “But at the same time, they can also compel us to come together, to create the kinds of relationships and the kind of community where every single man, woman and child feels belonging and connection.” 