Policing in Princeton

Kinder, Gentler, and Community-Oriented

By Anne Levin | Photographs by Charles R. Plohn

Last February, Princeton Council approved a settlement of $3.925 million in a lawsuit with seven members of the Princeton Police Department. Filed in 2013, the suit accused police chief David Dudeck of harassment, discrimination, and creating a hostile work environment. The town did not admit any liability, and the plaintiffs agreed to not file another suit.

The settlement marked the end of an unsavory chapter in the history of law enforcement in Princeton. But things have actually been on the upswing since 2015, when former police captain Nicholas Sutter was promoted to replace Dudeck, who was permitted to retire soon after the suits were filed.

A different culture that began to emerge then appears to now be firmly in place. Transparency, diversity, an openness to change, and respect are the department’s core values.  While nine officers have retired over the past few years, new recruits — several of whom are under 30 — come from a variety of non-traditional backgrounds. Of the 61 officers now on the force, six speak Spanish. One speaks Mandarin. Six are African American, including the first black woman officer in the department’s history. There is an officer dedicated to LGBTQ issues.

“It’s not just ethnicity or gender,” says Sutter. “It’s also about backgrounds. We have former teachers, former members of the military. We even have some talented musicians. There is a vast level of experience here that we might not have seen before.”

Sutter, who is 48 and has been with the department since 1995, has a background that is part traditional; part unusual. A native of Hillsborough who graduated from Kean University with bachelor’s degrees in economics and finance, he worked on Wall Street for a year before realizing he was meant for public service.

“Growing up, I spent a lot of time at my grandmother’s house, and I saw my uncle, who was a police officer in North Plainfield, all the time,” he recalls. “He would show up for lunch in his leather jacket, with the police radio and everything — I just loved it. But what impressed me most, even as a little kid, was the way he gave back to his town. He was protecting the people he grew up with and lived with.”

Sutter had expressed an interest in law enforcement at a young age, but his parents encouraged him to be open to other options before making a decision. The year on Wall Street was the deciding factor. He enrolled in Somerset’s police academy in January 1995, and was hired by the Princeton Borough Police Department that summer. He started out as a patrol officer, was a sergeant by 2000, a patrol sergeant by 2004, and then lieutenant, captain, and ultimately, chief.

Princeton Borough and Township had just consolidated when the lawsuits against Dudeck were filed six years ago. Between the legal issues and the merging of the two departments, the challenges facing the police were considerable.

“It wasn’t only the Dudeck thing. We had just consolidated. We were literally building a new department,” says Sutter, who served as acting chief for two years before his official appointment to chief. “When there is a merger, you want to go in on a positive note, but we didn’t. The lawsuits made it more difficult. But I look at it this way: Opportunities can arise in times of crisis. It caused us to go through formal and informal assessments. We wanted to get to the root of issues that needed to change. If we had never had these problems, it would have just been business as usual. But it wasn’t.”

The Borough had one culture; the Township had another. And the public had certain perceptions of each. “This gave us the chance to look at who we were and change it,” Sutter says. “I actually saw it happen before my eyes. And it never would have happened otherwise. We had no choice but to fix things and make things better. Yes, it was stressful. It was uncharted territory. But from crisis came opportunity.”

Community policing has been a priority of the department since consolidation, and it continues today. With a sizable portion of Latino residents, many of whom are undocumented, Sutter wants everyone to feel included and protected.

“Our officers have embraced this mission and they have taken community-oriented policing to new heights,” Sutter said in an April presentation to Princeton Council of the 2018 Police Report. “The innovation and creativity that our officers have shown in developing new and unique policing strategies that increase community partnerships and increase the quality of life for our citizens is the type of exemplary police work our community has come to expect.”

Former Princeton Council member Heather Howard, who served as the governing body’s police commissioner for several years, believes the police department turned a corner with consolidation. “It was a time to bring these two departments together, and it could have been fraught with peril,” she said. ”But under Nick’s leadership, it worked.”

The town’s law enforcement went through a rigorous accreditation process. “They have the standards and procedures and sophistication of a much larger department, which is a credit to the fact that Nick is a visionary,” says Howard. “He sees the role of the police not as warriors, but as guardians of the public. And that says it all. It’s about protecting the public. Sometimes that means acting like counselor — connecting with the community.”

Charges of police brutality have tested law enforcement in cities and towns across the nation. “Our biggest challenge today as a department is writing our own narrative and succeeding against what the national narrative is on policing,” says Sutter. “We have to rise above it and prove to people that our mission is legitimate, and the officers are well intended. We have to meet their expectations and help them. And we have to go against what you see on the nightly news.”

On a national basis, those incidents have caused a drop in the number of people pursuing police careers — but not in Princeton. “We have had three recruitments since 2013, with over 800 initial applicants each time,” says Sutter. “It’s weird, because departments nationwide are having problems recruiting. But we are not. We put a positive face on policing and a great effort into recruiting and putting our story out there. We have a team that is young and diverse, and they attract the right people. We want morally strong communicators who will treat the public with respect. And we train them how to be cops. We still need to recruit the fastest and the strongest, but now we also concentrate on attitudes, communication, and diversity. It’s the moral being I’m looking for. And I think that’s a huge piece of our transformation.”

Taking a cue from a strategic plan, the department has undergone various changes and restructuring. More officers are now on the streets instead of sergeants in the middle. Another new focus is the speed of information and a recognition of the importance of social media. During the “swatting” incidents, where numerous threats were repeatedly called in to Princeton’s public schools four years ago, students had the information on social media before the police were on the scene.

While there is always room for additional improvement, the department has reached a level of which local officials are proud.

“Nick has been a transformative leader for the department in a time of significant change starting with consolidation, then the departure of Chief Dudeck, and more recently, the large number of officers aging into retirement,” said Mayor Liz Lempert. “The chief has taken on each of these challenges and managed to strengthen the department in the process. Today the Princeton Police Department is more diverse, more community-oriented, more effective, and more beloved than at any time I can remember. Nick has created a model for how to proactively engage with community partners, build meaningful relationships of trust, and act as guardians of the Constitution for everyone in town.”