By Pam Hersh
My angst antennae are particularly sensitive these days, so when I heard the news, I made my Edvard Munch “Scream” face, and uttered my anxiety-filled comment: “Oh no, say it isn’t so.”
I called the police, spoke to the Princeton police chief who checked his trustworthy source, and then he told me “I am afraid it is so.” His trustworthy source was none other than himself, Chief Nicholas Sutter. Chief Sutter announced a couple of weeks ago that he is retiring. His last day is Oct. 1, 2020.
Even though criticisms these days are being hurled throughout the country at certain police officers, whose actions have been denounced as racist, inhumane and despicable, Chief Sutter has not been among the cursed. His actions during 27 years on the Princeton Borough and Princeton police forces have been humane, praiseworthy and respectful of all residents regardless of race, religion or socioeconomic status.
“For me personally, the reason I am leaving is very mundane – it is time for me to move on to the next challenge in my professional journey. And I would be leaving when the department is strong, respected, and progressive. My work with the Princeton Police Department (the consolidation of the Princeton Borough and the Princeton Township Police Departments) and before that with the Princeton Borough Police Department has been the only law enforcement work I have done in my life. The work has been incredibly inspiring, interesting, fulfilling, and, of course, challenging,” said Nick, who six years ago in 2014 was promoted from Princeton police captain to Princeton police chief after a unanimous vote by Mayor Liz Lempert and members of the Princeton Council. “But I look forward to taking what I have learned in Princeton and use it in some other capacity. Right now, I am unsure what that will be.”
He is fairly certain, however, that he will not be seeking a finance job on Wall Street, where he worked at 120 Broadway for one year after his graduation from Kean University, with a major in finance and economics.
“I gave a financial services career a shot and quickly learned that it was not for me. I had always wanted to be a cop. My uncle was a police officer – he was my hero and had a huge influence on me. I decided after trying a job in finance that I should follow my passion,” said Nick, who went on to get a degree from the FBI National Law Enforcement Academy, followed by master’s degree in public administration from Columbia Southern University, and then a certificate from the leadership-training program at West Point.
I first met Nick in his first year on the Princeton Borough police force in 1995 when he was 23 years old. I can’t remember the circumstances of our meeting – whether I was in my role as reporter or Princeton University community relations officer or as an annoying citizen arguing that my parking ticket was unconstitutional. But I can remember liking him immediately. My lasting impression was that he really listened and didn’t dismiss me as a wacky little old lady (which I was and still am, only older).
In our most recent conversation just last week, I was very comforted when he told me that he was “sure of one thing” – that he would remain living in the area. “This is my home,” and he intends to continue to “bother” his friends, relatives, and former colleagues, said Nick, a Hillsborough native who lives in Lawrence Township with his wife and three sons.
Since he turns 50 in September, some might call this a midlife crisis, but Nick described his retirement as no crisis. He is happy with his accomplishments in Princeton and is confident that the Princeton Police Department is headed in the right direction. He said he owes his administrative achievements in his capacity as police chief to the “smart, caring and amazingly conscientious” elected officials and police department colleagues. “And they still be there after I retire.”
He acknowledged that his colleagues have been particularly supportive in recent months, when he also has been serving as the municipality’s director of emergency management. The former director, Bob Gregory, died unexpectedly, and the chief was asked to do the emergency management job and the police chief job, just as COVID-19 was making its horrific presence known to the community.
He described the Princeton Police Department as being “an agent of change. We were the first department in the state to have gone through a full consolidation (as opposed to one department taking over another). That fact I think gave us the opportunity to be very flexible, progressive, ahead of public demands for change. For example, our community policing program and protocols for police officer accountability were being implemented well before the recent demands for structural change in police departments,” Nick said.
In the area of police accountability, the department instituted – prior to the current national conversation of doing so – an “early warning” system to monitor police personnel behavior. The system is meant to uncover minor problems with individual officers’ behavior that may be a harbinger of greater behavioral problems. The software, said Nick, tracks a variety of “things that may seem like nothing but when put together add up to something.” For example, if an individual has been late to work several times, or has one or two citizen complaints about rudeness, or has had a car accident when on duty. “Those three things taken separately never would amount to close scrutiny; however, when compiled, we notice a pattern and intervene.”
When it comes to “defunding the police,” Nick would like the label the initiative as “refocusing public safety operations to be responsive to the particular needs of the community.” For example, he does not believe in having civilian social workers by themselves respond to incidents of reported domestic abuse or violent incidents. But he strongly has advocated for a system of “second responders,” where a team of social workers accompany the police to the scene of the unrest. “Police officers have had to try to fill the role of social workers but we are not social workers and don’t have the training to provide the appropriate assessment of a situation, the follow up and monitoring. I have been advocating for a second responder program. The police are present to make a scene safe and a second responder deals with underlying issues,” Nick said.
He looks forward to an “honest and thoughtful debate” about restructuring public safety departments. The conversation has to take place, he said, in an environment characterized not by anger but by determination to make changes that will benefit the community.
The chief is an unequivocal fan of consolidation of the borough and township police forces. “We now do everything better as one department – we are sharper, and more effective with fewer personnel (52 officers versus 60 in the combined borough and township).
One of things that consolidation accomplished was a holistic review of public safety operations in the community, and “I think we should have another strategic planning process with focus groups of the stakeholders in community,” Nick said. “That is how we learn about community needs and trends before we have a crisis. Our public safety policies should reflect a vision around what community wants – not what the police want.”
And that comment is exactly why all the residents of Princeton are very happy that Nick chose Nassau Street over Wall Street.