Princeton’s Finest: Moving Forward

By Linda Arntzenius

Photography by Tom Grimes

As recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, have made clear, open lines of communication between the police and the people they serve are a vital part of modern policing. It’s been almost two years since the Princeton Police Department was formed as a result of the consolidation of Princeton Borough and Princeton Township into a single municipality.

The process of joining two formerly independent police departments, each with its own procedures and practices, its own culture, you might say, has not been painless. A process of review and self-refl ection that has been described as a model for other municipalities, brought to light a past history of dysfunction.

When the Borough and Township police became one in January 2013, a new era was heralded by then Police Chief David Dudeck, appointed to lead the new department in what seemed to be an atmosphere of renewal. One of Dudeck’s first tasks was to unveil a new Police Community Survey that asked residents what they wanted from their police. But even before the results of the survey were in, Dudeck was on leave amidst allegations of misconduct; he subsequently retired last September, shortly after seven officers, all of whom served under Dudeck when he was chief of Borough Police, filed a lawsuit against him, the department and the municipality, alleging discrimination and harassment based on “gender, sexual orientation and disability.” It was not a good start for Princeton’s largest, most expensive, most essential and most community-sensitive department.

The lawsuit is not the subject of this article, which is focused instead on the Department that has not only weathered past storms but is emerging as a different kind of police department, one in which transparency is the order of the day.

In April, a popular new police chief was appointed from within departmental ranks by unanimous decision of Mayor Liz Lempert and members of Princeton Council. Nicholas K. Sutter, 43, who had served in the Borough since 1995, and had been acting chief since his predecessor’s departure, was cheered by a roomful of blueuniformed officers at Witherspoon Hall. As acting chief, he had had been commended frequently as a unifying influence, introducing new community policing and traffi c services, and strengthening community relations.

“The department is very different now,” says Sutter, who grew up in Hillsborough in a family of public servants; both his parents were teachers. He always wanted to be a police officer and, although he explored possible careers in business and education, graduating with a double-major in finance and economics from Kean University in 1993, it was police work that drew him. “My uncle, Carl Gaebel, was an officer in North Plainfield and he was an enormous influence on me.” Sutter likens his job to a “calling.” “Policing requires service and sacrifice from officers and their families, it has to be a calling and even if many officers don’t appreciate that to begin with, they soon come to realize it.”

Sutter and his wife Carrie have three boys, Thomas, 10, Nicholas, Jr., 7 and Gavin, 4. Married for 14 years, they live in Lawrenceville. He came to Princeton straight out of Police Academy and has worked his way through division ranks, from patrol through to sergeant, detective sergeant, lieutenant, and then captain. Serving in every division gives him an edge, he believes.

PERIOD OF CHANGE

“Police departments are ordinarily well established and deeply entrenched organizations with long histories and established cultures,” says Sutter. “That often makes them resistant to change, and that makes the enormous change this department has gone through all the more remarkable. If not managed correctly those changes could have been catastrophic but now, one and half years on, the department is settling into its stride.”

To get to where it is now, the department built on that initial community survey, plunged into extensive offi cer training in such matters as the handling of immigration status with respect to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement laws, and worked to build trust in Princeton’s immigrant community, bringing to light the complex issue of wage theft, a crime that takes advantage of undocumented workers employed by contractors, restaurant owners, landscapers, private residents or companies. After a very lengthy process in which the entire agency’s practices and procedures came under scrutiny, the department was accredited by the New Jersey State Association of Chiefs of Police in March.

Sutter acknowledges “the imperative role” played by the Rodgers Group, the public safety consulting firm hired by the municipality post-consolidation to report on the health and culture of Princeton’s police. “The Rodgers Report entailed an innovative process rare among established police departments, and going through it entitles the department to think of itself as “cutting-edge.” “We are committed to thinking out of the box. We’re not a traditional police department anymore,” says Sutter.

TRANSPARENCY

According to the new Chief, transparency is a major aspect of that difference and it is encouraged by making sure there are regular opportunities for views and ideas to reach the Chief’s ear. “Nick is really good at taking in information and letting us know that not everything is written in stone, things can be tweaked,” says Detective Ben Gering, the police union representative of the PBA (Princeton Benevolent Association). In his weekly meetings with Sutter, Gering serves as a conduit for timeand man-power-saving ideas from offi cers. It’s a procedure that creates “buy-in” for everyone, he says, “especially in a profession where there are so many rules and procedures; everyone feels that they have input, and they do.”

“Face-to-face meetings are valuable in a profession where so many offi cers work varying shifts,” says Sgt. Geoff Maurer. “Regular staffmeetings with first line supervisors and bureau heads are a way not only to share information but allow the Chief and his administrative staff to better ‘keep a pulse’ on the department. Chief Sutter is very approachable and is genuinely invested in the Department; it is obvious he is giving his all to forge the new agency into one that we, and the community, can be proud of.” The department also publishes monthly online reports.

With all members of the department sharing the same break room, not much is kept behind closed doors. “We all eat lunch together, we talk about our kids, we laugh; we enjoy each others’ company,” says Sutter, who is clearly proud that his offi cers form something of a “large extended family.” “Sharing coffee or lunch with the offi cers is one of the most rewarding parts of my job.” He is quick to point out that all pulled their weight through the recent process of change. “What at fi rst seemed like an impossible task turned out to be very gratifying and they got on with the job right from the start when things were tough; that’s when you really see character,” he says, adding that the Town Administrator, Robert Bruschi, was an enormous infl uence. “Bob served as a mentor to me; I was always in awe of his analytical ability to look at something from many different angles and fi nd solutions that satisfi ed all involved; I learned so much from him about leadership and management.”

“Consolidation was a learning process for everyone and now we are a larger police department with specialized units that can better serve the public,” says Lt. Sharon Papp, one of several female offi cers who are supervisors. Papp joined Borough police in 1993 and was Offi cer of the Year three years later. A graduate of the Trenton Police Academy, she is the daughter of a Trenton police offi cer, who died before she was born.

One other accomplishment that Sutter is particularly proud of is the clarification of what had been an ambiguous relationship between the Princeton Police and Princeton University’s Department of Public Safety. In the past, it was unclear who was responsible for what, which often led to an inefficient duplication of effort when offi cers from both Borough police and campus police would respond to an oncampus break-in, for example.

Sutter researched what had been done in other university towns and found that a clearly spelled out Memorandum of Agreement was a recommended best practice. One of the most important aspects of the agreement, says Sutter, is that the collaboration includes sharing resources and is embodied in a “living, breathing document that is discussed at least once a month, and often more frequently.”

“I’ve educated myself a great deal since my days as a Borough police offi cer and I’ve become much more open to ideas,” says Sutter. “I’ve had to listen and read, listen and understand.”

SERVICE ORIENTED

As a Patrol Sergeant with 18 years in law enforcement, most of it in Princeton, Geoff Maurer is responsible for the supervision of a patrol squad of some eight individuals. “In Princeton, we are fortunate to work in a safe town, where quality of life issues and traffic concerns are the most common complaints. We are service oriented and assist residents in a myriad of ways that might be outside people’s ‘traditional’ perception of what police offi cers do,” says Maurer, an avid cyclist and runner who grew up in Plainsboro and is the proud father of two daughters.

Like many of his colleagues, Maurer worked while earning his master’s degree at Seton Hall University. Like Sutter, he tried business but it wasn’t for him; he prefers the variety that a career in law enforcement brings. His father was also a police offi cer and enjoys interacting with the public through the Community Policing Unit. He has taught the DARE program; assisted parents with child safety; and organized a bike light give-away program to provide rear bike lights to Princeton’s Hispanic population. “Oftentimes offi cers only interact with citizens in a negative context: when they are victims of a crime, when they break the law, or are in a crisis. It is truly gratifying to be a positive influence in people’s lives,” he says.

PROACTIVE POLICING

“The major policing issues in Princeton are quality of life issues,” says Sutter. “The town sees a little bit of everything, as a destination for an influx of visitors, we have traffic issues, and we are keenly aware of our need to ensure the safety of our young people. We police in a proactive way, reaching out to schools and the community at large.”

Besides other duties, Lt. Chris Morgan oversees both the Safe Neighborhood Bureau and the Detective Bureau. “Police work in every aspect is about helping others and the community in which you work; every hour of the day our offi cers are working to make Princeton a better community for our residents and visitors. What I appreciate most about this profession is working with officers and our civilian employees who are committed to the organization, the profession and the community. Because of their professionalism and dedication the Princeton Police Department has quickly identified itself as one the finest police departments in the state. There is a tremendous amount of pride in our organization.”

Morgan, who grew up in Ewing and lives in Robbinsville with his wife Alison and their two children Jack, 8, and Emily, 6, looks forward to events such as “Coffee with a Cop” at local eateries in which local residents sit down with offi cers and enjoy a free cup of coffee and one-on-one conversation. “These sit-downs will break down barriers if residents don’t feel uniformed offi cers are approachable. It is our goal to foster relationships between our offi cers and members of the community, which in turn will benefi t the department as well as the public we serve,” says Morgan whose time away from work is typically spent coaching his son’s little league team or going to his daughter’s dance recitals. Growing up with a police offi cer brother, Morgan saw at fi rst hand the positive impact his brother had on his community. “That’s what guided me toward law enforcement,” he says. A graduate of The College of New Jersey, he has a BS in Law and Justice and an MA from Seton Hall University that was earned as part of the NJ State Police Graduate Studies Program. In addition, he has a certificate in criminal justice education from the University of Virginia and has had Federal Bureau of Investigation training.

Helping people was also an impetus for Patrol Officer Mike Strobel. “I also enjoy the fact that every shift is different and no two days are the same; you have to be mentally and physically prepared for what you may encounter any given day,” says Strobel, now in his fifth year with the Department, after graduating with a degree in criminal justice from the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey in 2008. He hopes to go back to school for a master’s degree in the near future.

An interest in problem solving drew Cpl. Marla Montague to law enforcement. Montague grew up in a small farming community in Indiana, not far from Cincinnati, Ohio. She now lives in Ocean County with her husband, also a police officer, and has been with the department for 16 years. The department’s first female firearms instructor, Montague enjoys reading historical biographies and researching her family genealogy in her downtime.

PRINCETON’S FIRST K9 UNIT

This year, the Department added a K9 unit. Officer Harris, a Czech Shepherd named in honor of Borough Police Officer Walter B. Harris, the African American officer who was shot and killed in the line of duty in 1946, is trained in explosive detection, searching, tracking, apprehension, evidence collection, crime prevention, and security. He will also play an important role in community relations as he visits schools and takes part in local events.

His handler, Cpl. Matthew R. Solovay, grew up in Edison and lives in Hamilton with his wife and two boys, aged 4 and 2. Solovay became a Princeton police officer in 2005, after majoring in Criminal Justice at Seton Hall University and graduating from the Alternate Route Program of the John H. Stamler Police Academy. He also has a master’s degree in administrative science from Fairleigh Dickinson University.

Being a police dog-handler is an enormous commitment for both Solovay and his family. Officer Harris has become part of the Solovay “pack,” which includes their playful five year-old Labrador retriever, Maverick. “But when Harris comes home from work he doesn’t turn into a pet; he’s a working dog, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week; there is no off switch, he has to be ready to go to work at all times,” says Solovay, who enjoys 5K charity runs and watching his favorite sports teams, The New York Yankees and the Dallas Cowboys. “Only a small percentage of law enforcement offi cers get the opportunity to have a K9 partner and I’m extremely proud of the program and grateful to the department and local government for this dynamic tool.”

MOVING FORWARD

With two offi cers hired in August, the number of sworn offi cers is 53, just one fewer than the number immediately post consolidation. Sutter is happy with that. “But the more important question is whether the town’s residents and the governing body are happy with that,” he says. “I believe we can provide excellent service at this number but it’s up to the town to say whether it’s satisfi ed with the service we provide. Given that we are, in essence, a new department, we are still in a testing period, forming our baseline.”

The next big thing on Sutter’s “To Do List” is the development of a strategic plan for the fledgling department. “This is the vehicle that will guide us successfully into the future,” he says. “It’s important that the Princeton community knows that we want them to be proud of us, that each and every one of us wants to serve them in the best way possible.” Pride is a word that Sutter uses a lot, a mantra that serves to dispel the specters of past dysfunction and discord.

 

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