This article was originally published in the May 2018 Princeton Echo.
From a law enforcement point of view, it’s easy to think of Princeton as a quiet town. With a low crime rate and a fairly affluent population, the town is a genteel place where the police blotter usually mentions speeding infractions, burglaries, scams of senior citizens, and drunk driving arrests. But in this information age, and with a politically aware community, the national attention paid to issues related to police and policing policies reverberates in a quiet town like Princeton.
The presence of a substantial community of immigrants in town has placed the Princeton police in the position of having to clarify when they would — and would not — intervene in immigration matters. The public outcry following the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, triggered some soul searching at the Princeton police department. A year after Ferguson the routine traffic stop of a black professor of African-American studies at Princeton and her treatment at police headquarters brought racial issues directly into the Princeton’s conversation with its police. Earlier this year the school shootings in Parkland, Florida, were the occasion for another moment of reflection for the Princeton police — how safe are the schools in our quiet little town?
On a quiet Tuesday morning in late March a middle-aged, white man with a handgun walked into the Panera Bread at 136 Nassau Street and demanded that employees and customers leave the store. Frightened people quickly walked out the front door and through other doors in the rear of the store. For more than four hours, officers and agents from the municipal police, state police, and the FBI were locked in a tense standoff with the man, who was later identified as Scott Mielentz, a 56-year-old Lawrence resident. Police shot and killed Mielentz after trying to negotiate with him. No one else was injured. At least one shot was fired through the front window of Panera. The handgun turned out to be a BB gun. The man had recently gone through a series of emotionally charged events.
In emergencies like this, the primary responsibility for both keeping the town safe and for responding to the community’s sense of justice falls to Nicholas Sutter, the police chief in Princeton. Less than a week after the Panera shooting, Sutter read a statement to the town council. While limited in terms of what he could say while the New Jersey attorney general was still completing the official investigation, Sutter also responded via e-mail to follow-up questions from this reporter, who had begun interviews for this profile more than four months before the Panera shooting.
In the case of the Panera incident the overriding question was simple: Could there have been a different resolution, one in which the gunman was apprehended alive?
In his e-mail response Sutter acknowledged that people in Princeton, like many others around the country, are concerned about law enforcement-involved involved shootings. “People should have the facts about these incidents as soon as possible,” he wrote. But he added that the attorney general’s investigative process “is very independent and very thorough,” sometimes preventing the immediate release of all the facts.
“I can tell you that our officers did everything possible to prevent the loss of life and they showed tremendous compassion and restraint during this incident,” Sutter said.
The chief hoped to clear up several misconceptions. “I feel that some believe that the subject was inside Panera by himself and the police suddenly rushed in. This is not the case. Our initial responding officers went to Panera in response to several 911 calls reporting a gunman inside. This requires an active shooter type response where we have to engage the person immediately to prevent innocent people from being harmed. Upon arrival we did not know if he was still in the building or if there were hostages,” Sutter said. “Rather than engage him with deadly force, our officers remained inside for 4 1/2 hours using all means available to get him to surrender peacefully. Our officers were inside the building face to face from the start of the incident.”
As for the possible use of less lethal weapons to subdue the man, Sutter said he didn’t want to speculate. “Remember, we are viewing this incident with hindsight, not with the facts we had at the time. We could not confirm that people were still not hiding inside, and we believed — had he gotten outside — people may have been in danger. Our ability to negotiate and contain him inside the building prevented the situation from spilling out onto the streets.” A less lethal attack could have “forced a confrontation and gunfire that we didn’t need to do while negotiating,” Sutter said.
The chief addressed a public concern over the presence of so many different police agencies at the scene. “We have many prearranged policies and structures in place, but we cannot comment publicly on specific tactical details,” Sutter said. “There were five agencies on scene that we coordinated with and used all of their expertise and specialties to attempt to bring this to a peaceful conclusion. These relationships that we have formed and our coordinated response are an integral piece of responding to an incident like this.”
“Please remember, we get into policing to save lives and never want to see an incident end with the use of deadly force,” Sutter wrote. “However, in some cases it is unavoidable and tragic.”
This was the first time that someone had been shot and killed by police in Princeton since 2003, when a 24-year-old black man, acting erratically and brandishing a 12-inch kitchen knife, was surrounded by four offices from the Township police and shot to death.
Fifteen years ago that police shooting elicited little public discussion. The shooting at Panera Bread seems to be a different matter. Some townspeople immediately started to question the official response to the standoff. No one claimed any expertise but still people wondered: Could this have ended without any shots being fired? What about using tear gas to incapacitate the gunman? Someone pointed out that prisoners at Guantanamo had been assaulted by loud music. Could the police have bombarded the gunman with sounds and waited for him to collapse in exhaustion? Was there a better way?
The Panera shooting came just a little more than a month after the Parkland school shooting and a few days before the national march against gun violence. It was no coincidence that four days after the shooting, when opponents of gun violence gathered in Hinds Plaza, many of the handmade posters from the event were taped to the windows of the temporarily closed Panera Bread. The Panera shooting occurred in a far different political climate from the 2003 incident.
All of which made the question even more relevant: In an age of intense scrutiny of police, how does a small-town police chief protect the community, respond to activist concerns, and manage political situations?
Nick Sutter’s office, on the bottom floor of Princeton’s municipal building, is well-kept and carefully curated; everything he wants a visitor to know he cares about is displayed. The badges he has previously worn, from patrolman to captain, sit atop a cabinet, immediately to the right of the doorway. Photos of him fishing (with his sons) and playing golf (with his friends) come next. In the corner stand flags of the United States and the Princeton Police Department.
Sitting on the bottom shelf of a bookcase, below a framed photograph of the U. S. Supreme Court building, is the Justice Department’s 2015 report on the Ferguson, Missouri, police department. The St. Louis suburb had been engulfed in protests after a white police officer shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager. The Justice Department found that the Ferguson Police Department’s policies had created tensions with the town’s majority-black population for years. “City officials have consistently set maximizing revenue as the priority for Ferguson’s law enforcement activity,” the Ferguson report said; this cost was disproportionately borne by black people. Almost a quarter of Ferguson’s municipal revenue in 2015 was expected to come from fines for minor infractions, like speeding or talking back to an officer.
The same year as the Ferguson report, a President Obama-appointed task force released a 99-page primer on how police should operate in modern America. “Trust between law enforcement agencies and the people they protect and serve is essential in a democracy,” the task force said. “The public confers legitimacy only on those whom they believe are acting in procedurally just ways.” Sutter has tried to impart the report’s message on his officers in Princeton. When he speaks about policing, he often borrows phrases from the task force.
Sutter has the earnest bearing that you would expect from a mayor in Wisconsin, or a football coach in Nebraska. His chunky digital wristwatch has a built-in GPS to track his runs (“I’ve always been into physical fitness”). At age 47 he has managed to avoid any middle-aged paunch.
Throughout his tenure as chief, Sutter has placed an emphasis on building and maintaining relationships with the Princeton community. In his mind, the ability of police officers to preserve public safety is inextricably linked to promoting a dialogue between the department and the community it serves. “Perception is everything in policing,” he said. “There are legitimate reasons behind what we’re doing, but people don’t understand them.” Ferguson is Sutter’s nightmare. He fervently believes that his department’s duty is, first and foremost, to protect the community. Sutter’s favorite statistic is that nearly seven in ten traffic stops his officers made in 2016 ended with a warning for the driver, which Sutter believes changes behavior almost as much as a ticket. “We make arrests because we have to. We give tickets because at that point the officer decided it was the right thing to do.”
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“Sometimes, even when you’re right, you’re not right,” Sutter said in reference to the February, 2016, incident involving Imani Perry, a professor of African-American studies at Princeton University. Arrested by Princeton police after a routine traffic stop, Perry posted about it on her Facebook page soon after. The post, which has since been deleted, claimed that she had been mistreated in jail because she was handcuffed to a table while she was in the police station. (Perry declined to comment for this article.)
Perry is a black woman, and the subject of race immediately came up. “The fact of my blackness is not incidental to this matter,” she posted on Facebook. (Perry tweeted a week later that she never alleged racial bias in the case.) Eddie Glaude Jr., the chair of Princeton University’s Department of African American Studies, told the Daily Princetonian, the school’s student paper, that race often plays a significant factor in cases like this: “The question, and it should be asked over and over again, is whether or not others, particularly white motorists, are subject to the same treatment.” The story even made the New York Times: “Black Princeton Professor Says She Was Handcuffed to Table Over Parking Ticket.” Given that tensions in America were running high over racially biased policing, this showed signs of becoming another flash point.
Black motorists are pulled over in Princeton at a disproportionately high rate compared to their population in the municipality, although the police department says that the demographic profile of people who drive through the area does not match that of residents. Black drivers are less likely to receive a ticket during a traffic stop than any other racial or ethnic group in Princeton.
Sutter noted that he heard of Perry’s arrest on Super Bowl Sunday, and he immediately went to work at the police station, reviewing the video of the arrest before he had to confront the brewing media firestorm. Perry had been driving 67 miles per hour in a 45-mile-per-hour zone, Sutter told news outlets at the time, and officers were required to arrest her because she had an outstanding warrant for a series of unpaid parking tickets. As it turned out, the encounter followed department policy and state law to the letter.
Heather Howard, a Princeton council member and the police commissioner, was initially concerned by Perry’s treatment. “Why does someone who has been stopped for speeding get handcuffed or get arrested?” Howard asked in a recent interview. “We had a lot of questions about it. Once it was explained it made sense.” Every person who is arrested in Princeton is handcuffed to a steel bar while being booked. (Sutter said that, from his experience, it is safer to handcuff everyone, so that no suspects can become violent in the police station.) Howard commended Sutter for how he handled the situation in the days after the arrest.
The internal affairs bureau of the Princeton Police Department started an investigation of Perry’s arrest, but Sutter asked the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office, which is not connected to the police department, to investigate instead. “If we did something incorrect, it’ll come out in that investigation,” Sutter told the Times of Trenton. Days later, the police department released the dashboard camera footage of Perry’s arrest. The prosecutor’s office eventually found that there had no misconduct by the Princeton police. Perry paid $428 in fines. (The New York Times did not return for a follow-up story about the resolution of the incident.)
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Sutter knew from an early age that he wanted to become a police officer. His parents were teachers in nearby Hillsborough, but his uncle was a policeman. Through his uncle, Sutter met many of Hillsborough’s officers. “I really worshipped him and the people he worked with,” Sutter said. “They were always so approachable and kind.”
Instead of joining the police force right after getting his undergraduate degree at Kean University, Sutter spent a year training to be a junk bond broker in New York. “My parents — not that they didn’t want me to be a cop — they wanted me at least to examine other opportunities.” After leaving Wall Street, Sutter became a police officer in Princeton Borough. He became chief in 2014, a year after the consolidation with the surrounding township. In the past 23 years Sutter has not looked back at his possible career in finance. “From a fiscal standpoint, I might have been better off in the long run, but I certainly wouldn’t have been fulfilled.”
Sutter worries that most people see police officers as uniformed officials who work for some distant government, not the people. “Community relationships are so important because it allows the townspeople to get to know us as people,” he said.
One impediment to improving the community-police relationship might be that most Princeton police officers live in other municipalities. The median value of an owner-occupied house in Princeton is nearly three times that of New Jersey as a whole, according to Census Bureau data. A new hire at the Princeton police department makes a little more than $60,000 per year, and the pay scale for officers with a dozen years on the force is around $114,000, according to a 2017 nj.com survey. That often is not enough to afford to live in Princeton. Sutter himself lives in Lawrence with his wife, a teacher’s assistant, and their three school-age sons.
Sutter said that Princeton is not just a wealthy college town. “You have all these different people, from different racial and ethnic backgrounds and different countries, but you also have every socioeconomic background here, whether it be super wealthy or the super underprivileged,” he said. More than a quarter of Princeton residents were born outside the United States, according to the Census Bureau. “Princeton always intrigued me because it’s a microcosm of the world.”
According to Sutter, the job of a police officer and the legal system is to bring justice to people who could not otherwise get it. Holding criminals responsible for crimes is a public service, but can justice exist without state-sponsored vengeance? “Absolutely,” Sutter said. “We can arrest people for lots of things, but it serves no purpose.” The carrot should come before the stick. “That brings legitimacy.”
Sutter pointed to the “Coffee with a Cop” program that his department runs as an example of the community outreach he has established. Princeton residents can meet with a police officer and ask questions about policing and anything else over a cup of coffee. “If you call because you got in a car accident, I want you to know the man that’s responding,” Sutter said. “Right away I think that would bring you some comfort. You don’t just see a uniform walking up, you see a person you know.”
Fred Williams, a community outreach specialist in the Princeton Police Department, who is African-American, said the relationship between the community and the police is better in Princeton than in other places he has worked. His past beats include Newark, New Jersey, and the Marine Corps (where he was a military policeman). “Here in Princeton, we have a lot of support from the community, we have a lot of support from the politicians,” he said.
Every year the police union fields a team in a community dodgeball tournament hosted by Corner House, the substance abuse treatment and counseling center in the old Borough office building at 1 Monument Drive. Williams made a promotional video for this year’s dodgeball tournament. In the video, clips of police officers lifting weights are interspersed with snippets from the movie, “Dodgeball,” while a voice-over declares the importance of the charity tournament. (“Dodgeball — where the only rights at stake are bragging rights.”) The tournament is one of the best opportunities for townspeople to see police officers as normal people, Williams said. “By and large, the only people who see police officers behaving in ways like that are their friends and family.”
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Few things evoke the American idyll more than a baseball field in the springtime. Sutter was watching one of his sons play baseball in the spring of 2017 when a chirp from his cell phone brought the stressors of the world to the ball field. A Princeton resident had posted on Facebook that agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) were performing a mass roundup of undocumented Guatemalan immigrants in Princeton.
Sutter called his subordinates at the police department to find out what had happened, but none were aware of an immigration raid. Rumors were spreading behind the drawn shades of undocumented immigrants’ houses in town, but the police could not figure out where the raid was. “I called my contacts at different law enforcement agencies to call ICE, they’re checking all their resources, and we find out that it never happened,” Sutter said.
Since he took control of the police force almost five years ago, Sutter has tried to gain the trust of Princeton’s immigrant community. In the past, undocumented immigrants would often refuse to cooperate with police when they were victims of crimes out of fear that the police department would report them to federal authorities. In one case, an undocumented Guatemalan immigrant was severely beaten and spent two weeks in a hospital, but he refused to give his name to police.
Sutter issued an order in 2013 declaring that as a municipal police force, his department had no role in enforcing immigration law, which is under federal domain, and would not cooperate with ICE in certain circumstances. Ryan Lilienthal, an immigration lawyer in Princeton who advised the police department on the policy, noted that local officers are not “constitutionally required to respond to detainer requests by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.” A detainer is a request from ICE that a suspected undocumented immigrant be detained by local police, but it is not signed by a judge. Princeton’s police department still complies with arrest warrants issued by judges. The immigration directive was not meant as a political statement, Sutter was quick to note, but a clarification of the law: “My job is strictly to follow the law and do what’s best for the community in the interest of public safety.”
The directive has not had a significant impact on the day-to-day operations of the department — Sutter said that ICE detainers are rarely issued to local police departments, and he has only received one in his career. But it has improved the immigrant-police relationship. Having a written, transparent policy has helped gain the trust of many undocumented immigrants.
Reports of the raid last March were false — ICE had not stepped foot in Princeton that day — but Sutter worried that even a false alarm like that frightened the immigrant community and made some people less likely to cooperate with police. “What kind of damage did that do?” Sutter asked. “How many people think that happened and are now scared of us?”
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Princeton Police have a clear policy with regard to undocumented immigrants that has improved the police-immigrant relationship.
As national debates over immigration and police brutality become increasingly divisive and partisan, Sutter restricts his view to enforcing the law as written and keeping his community safe. “We have to be completely apolitical,” Sutter told me. “I am a link between the political function and the law enforcement function, and I look at myself as a screen for the law enforcement function.” He follows the news, has opinions, and votes, but he does not let that influence his work. When I asked, he refused to divulge his party registration. “You can look it up,” Sutter said. “I vote my conscience.” (Sutter is a registered Republican, according to voter rolls from the Mercer County Board of Elections.) The strict commitment to staying out of political fights allows the police to focus on public safety, but it requires someone above Sutter to take on the political questions.
This seems to be an overarching question facing Sutter: how should a small-town police chief deal with polarizing issues when public safety is at stake? A day before the Panera standoff, when the Parkland school shooting was still high on the community’s mind, this reporter asked Sutter if he thought armed police officers should guard schools. He gave a response that fits his general trend of giving advice on issues without necessarily recommending a specific course of action. “This is really a decision for each local school board,” Sutter wrote in an e-mail. “It is not the sole answer to all security issues but it is one factor that should be considered in an overall security plan.”
Heather Howard, the Princeton town council member and police commissioner, has the responsibility of making policies for Sutter’s force to follow. This is a part-time position, and Howard’s day job involves lecturing and researching at Princeton University, where her office walls are filled with signs and stickers that support her generally progressive political positions. Howard has served as an advisor to a number of Democratic politicians, including President Bill Clinton and New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine.
Sutter seems to genuinely welcome the town council’s oversight, and Howard is not shy about her role as police commissioner. But where can she find the specialized counsel she needs to manage the police department in potentially contentious matters? Princeton is too small to furnish a large, independent bureaucracy to advise her. Various think tanks, political agencies, and unions publish best practices guides for running police departments, but they often require a high degree of background knowledge, or they might not address the specific issues seen in Princeton. Even someone as politically savvy as Howard might find it difficult to keep a close eye on the police.
Howard said that she and the council members often defer to Sutter in practice, because he simply has more knowledge and experience with these issues. When Howard was asked if the law should mandate arrests for driving on a suspended license (Imani Perry was driving on a suspended license, although that by itself would have led to a ticket instead of an arrest), her first instinct was not to turn to a legal expert, but to Sutter. “What did Nick say about that?”
At a town council meeting before the Panera incident, Sutter gave his monthly report on police activities. The meeting was not well attended by the public: there were more officials than spectators in the room. Howard congratulated Sutter on improving safety in the morning traffic flow at the local high school, and she asked about the one use of force recorded in the prior month. Someone became violent while dealing with a mental health crisis, Sutter said, and had to be forcefully restrained by police officers. He used this as a segue into a discussion about purchasing “less lethal” weapons for his department — some situations necessitate a use of force that is more severe than a baton, but less than a bullet.
During the final part of their time with Sutter, the council groused that drivers seem to be more aggressive and dangerous than they ever have been in Princeton. “I’m always shocked by parents you see talking on cell phones while driving in school zones,” Mayor Liz Lempert said.
The next day, hundreds of Princeton residents rallied in favor of the DREAM Act, which would codify the Obama administration’s DACA policy and give legal status to many undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as minors. President Trump had rescinded the DACA program, threatening the legal status of hundreds of thousands of immigrants. (Federal courts have since issued injunctions against Trump’s actions and in April a federal judge ruled (in a lawsuit brought by Princeton University and Microsoft) against the Trump administration’s effort to rescind DACA.) The mayor spoke, and the crowd marched through town carrying signs and chanting in Spanish and English.
The rally was planned far in advance, but it was overshadowed by an immigration raid that took place in Princeton earlier that day. In the predawn hours, ICE agents arrested four men with outstanding federal warrants for immigration violations in the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood, where many Central American immigrants live. The rumor that had interrupted Sutter at his son’s baseball game last March had become a reality.
When asked for comment about the raid, municipal officials deferred comment to Sutter. He told a local newspaper that the Princeton Police Department was not involved, and was only informed of the raid after the fact. Sutter did not discuss the political questions related to immigration enforcement.
After the Panera shooting, the town again turned to Sutter. At the council meeting less than one week after the incident, Sutter read a statement. “I am confident that we did everything possible to help the person involved in this incident,” he said. “Some of our officers placed themselves directly in harm’s way to talk and comfort him throughout the incident. I also know that the process of healing will take time for members of our community and police department. . . I also want to thank members of the community, municipality, and governing body for the support you have given to all those affected,” he said. “Your support will be vital as the healing process continues.”
Based on anecdotal evidence gathered in the weeks following the shooting, Sutter can count on the community’s continued support, and his outreach efforts and earnest reports to the community help him in that regard. Yet there will still be questions in the future, about the shooting and many other issues faced by police. Sutter’s legacy might be defined by who asks these questions and how he answers them.
Ethan Sterenfeld, a sophomore at Princeton University, will major in politics as an upperclassman.