Princeton University President Christopher Eisgruber posted a letter online and in the student newspaper the Daily Princetonian today expressing his concern about the arrest of African American Studies Professor Imani Perry.
Perry, who is black, was pulled over on Saturday morning on Mercer Street near the Battlefield State Park for allegedly driving 22 miles above the speed limit. Police discovered she had two outstanding warrants for her arrest for unpaid parking tickets, and that her Pennsylvania driver’s license had been suspended.
On Sunday, Perry described her arrest by the Princeton Police on social media, detailing how she was patted down by a male officer, was not allowed to make a call while on Mercer Street to let someone know where she was, was handcuffed, and was taken to the police station, where she was handcuffed to a table while she was processed.
“Many on our campus and around the country have expressed understandable concern about the arrest this past weekend of Professor Imani Perry, who is a respected scholar and beloved teacher at this University,” wrote Eisgruber in his letter. “They have been shocked that such an arrest could result from unpaid parking tickets. They have also been distressed about specific aspects of the arrest, including the fact that a pat-down was performed by a male officer and that Professor Perry was handcuffed to a desk after her arrest.”
Eisgruber said he shared those concerns.
“My colleagues and I in the University administration were in touch with Professor Perry as soon as we learned of the incident and we contacted town officials about our concerns over the weekend,” Eisgruber wrote. “The town officials responded rapidly and initiated an investigation that they have assured us will be thorough and fair. We welcome an investigation not only of the treatment of Professor Perry, but of the underlying policies, practices, and protocols that were applied.”
Eisgruber and Kristin Appelget, the school’s director of community and regional affairs, contacted Princeton Mayor Liz Lempert over the weekend. Lempert, whose husband works for the university, serves on the town’s public safety committee. The police commissioner for the town is Councilwoman Heather Howard, who works for the university.
Eisgruber went on in his letter to say the school shares with the town “a commitment to fair treatment of all members of our community and of making the entire Princeton community as welcoming, respectful, and inclusive as possible. We will continue to look for opportunities to advance those goals on our own campus and beyond it.”
Princeton Police Chief Nick Sutter on Monday night discussed the incident at a public meeting of the town’s governing body.
Sutter said he reviewed the incident and state law and proper protocols were followed. Arresting people for outstanding warrants is routine across the state, and arrest warrants are issued by the courts, not the police. The police do not have discretion to arrest someone or not if a court has issued a warrant, he said.
Sutter acknowledged that whether proper protocol was followed or not, there is a perception that such arrests are improper.
“Regardless of it being 100 percent proper in the eyes of the law, there is a perception because of race. This is a problem for me. It is a problem that is real, and needs to be addressed,” Sutter told the Council. “Neither I or nor the department is taking a defensive stance on this. There has been a lot of conversation about this. Regardless of how it is legally adjudicated, we have to be extremely sympathetic to this perception.”
Sutter said he thought recently that the police department was doing a very good job in the community addressing perceptions, but that the events of the last few days show that more work needs to be done.
“No matter what the facts are, we need to listen to perspectives and get better,” he said. “We’ve learned that there is a mistrust of law enforcement in our country. It is real.”
Sutter said while normal procedure would call for an internal affairs investigation, he referred the incident to the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office so that an unbiased third party can review the incident. He added that he feels strongly that it would be good to let the public see the video of the arrest and make their own decisions about whether it was right or wrong.
“But it has unintended consequences,” he said. “We have to consider the dignity of the person involved. The last thing I want to do is bring more pressure or scrutiny of person involved.”
He added that he welcomes open dialogue on policing issues.
“I’m completely open to criticism and critique, and I’m empathetic,” he said.