Princeton University Professor Imani Perry on Monday released a statement about her encounter with the Princeton Police, a day after posting tweets about being arrested by officers Saturday for an outstanding warrant for two unpaid parking tickets after she was pulled over for speeding.
Police Chief Nick Sutter also discussed the incident at the Princeton Council meeting Monday night. He did not mention Perry by name. He mentioned details about the incident that are public information under the state’s Open Public Records Act when someone is arrested.
Perry has declined to speak to reporters since the incident occurred. Planet Princeton reached out to her Sunday afternoon and other reporters have tried to interview her over the past two days.
“Yesterday I sent out a few tweets over an encounter with police in Princeton New Jersey. It generated quite a bit of attention. The details are there,” her Monday Facebook statement reads. “Though I have received many queries, I have declined speaking to press thus far. I found a way to share on social media that satisfied my need to speak.”
Perry tweeted Sunday about being pulled over and then arrested for a three-year-old parking ticket. She was not allowed to make a call on her cell phone before she was arrested, was patted down, and was taken to police headquarters, where she said she was handcuffed to a table.
“The response I have received since sharing my story has been overwhelmingly caring and thoughtful,” she wrote. Many people are vigilant and impassioned these days regarding policing. This is a direct result of the social movement that has emerged over the last several years. That is good. And it personally feels wonderful to be so supported. However, there are quite a few people who seem upset that I received support. Mostly they are suggesting that I am playing `innocent’ when I am `guilty.’ What they fail to understand is that I did not purport to be without fault. Now, make no mistake, I do not believe I did anything wrong. But even if I did, my position holds. The police treated me inappropriately and disproportionately. The fact of my blackness is not incidental to this matter.”
Perry wrote that in every profession, people exercise discretion “according to who they favor and who they disfavor, who they believe matters and who they consider inconsequential. And, as my own work and that of many colleagues has established, in this society abundant evidence exists that discretion is exercised, in general, in racially discriminatory fashion in virtually every arena studied from elementary school suspensions, to car purchases, to teachers recommending students for gifted and talented programs, to how often waiters visit your table in restaurants, to mortgages, to police stops and arrests.”
All things being equal, Perry said people in this society consistently disadvantage black people compared to others.
“Some critics have said that I should have expected what I received. But if it is the standard protocol in an affluent suburb to disallow a member of the community to make a call before an arrest (simply to inform someone of her arrest) and if it is the protocol to have male officers to pat down the bodies of women, and if it is the norm to handcuff someone to a table for failing to pay a parking ticket, we have a serious problem with policing in the society,” she wrote.
“If it is not the case that this is the general practice, then I hope everyone reading will consider the possibility that the way I was treated had something to do with my race, and that we have a serious problem with policing in this society particularly with respect to black people.”
Perry said it is the standard protocol for people in poor black, indigenous, and Latino communities to experience disproportionate police surveillance, harassment, violence, and punishment.
“I’m asking you to understand that my experience, and my feelings, are directly and intimately tied to that larger truth. We unquestionably have a serious problem with policing in this society,” she wrote. “This was my first time in handcuffs. They were very cold on my arthritic wrists. I have been thinking about how vulnerable they make you feel. And how some people, often my people, from childhood on experience that naked vulnerability over and over again because they happen to live in places deemed `bad’.”
Perry said some online commentators have told her if she hadn’t done anything wrong, the incident wouldn’t have happened.
“But this demand for behavioral perfection from black people in response to disproportionate policing and punishment is a terrible red herring,” she wrote. “I have lived in predominantly white communities for much of my life, and in those spaces I literally witnessed thousands of illegal acts that went unpunished. Lenience is the rule rather than the exception. I have also seen in those places and spaces that the blacker and poorer you are, the harsher the penalties you face. Lenience is not the rule for them when they are in the minority or the majority.”
Perry went on to say that punishment in this society does not exist in direct correlation to illegal activity.
“What it is correlated to is race and class. And if perfection is not required for white citizenship, it should not be required of mine. Fairness requires something better,” she wrote. “Moreover my quarrel is not with paying a fine, or getting a ticket (even though we know such punishments are also disproportionately meted upon black people who often don’t have the resources to pay them.) I could afford to pay the fine, and I paid it without hesitation.”
Perry said her issue is with how she was treated.
” I cannot ever say definitively that this specific mistreatment was a result of race,” she wrote. “But I can say that what I experienced was far more likely because my skin is a deep brown, my nose is round, and my hair is coily. And given the accumulation of police violence against black people in this society, my fear at being stopped and arrested as a black woman was warranted and even reasonable.”
Perry said the day that I shared my story, she received numerous emails and text messages from undergraduates, graduate students, and residents of Princeton shared stories about experiencing treatment they found unjust from the local police.
“I do not want to isolate the Princeton Police, although I would love for them to respond to this moment with care not simply towards me, but for the entire community they are charged with serving, But in truth, this is not just a local problem. It is a systemic one, one that is also national and international,” she wrote.
“Nor do I want to catastrophize what I experienced. It was humiliating and frightening, but I am not Sandra Bland, Rekia Boyd, or Tanisha Anderson. I was not murdered. I was not screamed at, roughed up, or held over the weekend, or for weeks, or years. I was not forced into a plea deal that will take me away from my children, or prevent me from working or maintaining my home. I am here. My life has not been ruined or destroyed,” she wrote. “I must admit I am somewhat ashamed that my story will get more attention than those of others who have experienced things far worse that merit our response. But I hope against hope that the attention my story has received, and the fact that many people will give me the benefit of the doubt because of my profession, my small build, my attachment to elite universities, and because prominent people will vouch for my integrity and responsibility, can be converted into something more important. I hope that this circle of attention will be part of a deeper reckoning with how and why police officers behave the way they do, especially towards those of us whose flesh is dark.”
Sutter confirmed at the Princeton Council Monday night that Perry, who was pulled over for allegedly driving at 67 miles per hour in a 45-miles-per-hour zone, was arrested for active warrants from the Princeton municipal court. She was also driving with a suspended Pennsylvania driver’s license. Sutter reviewed the incident and said state law and 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.
“A lot of the concerns about the incident amount to what I look at as much broader issue, not so much constrained to this specific incident,” Sutter said. “What we’ve learned today through discussions is that there is a perception that it is 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. 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 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 he has referred the incident to the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office so that an unbiased third party can review the incident. Sutter said 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.”Sutter added that he welcomes open dialogue on policing issues. “I’m completely open to criticism and critique, and I’m empathetic,” he said. “Hopefully from this incident we will become better as a community.”
Elected officials and the town administrator praised Sutter and the police department. Mayor Liz Lempert said officials should focus on changing state laws regarding how warrants are handled.
“It could be any of us,” she said. “It doesn’t seem like a huge crime. We’ve all been guilty of getting parking tickets, but the response does not seem to match the offense. That is the underlying concern we have. We need to take a look at the state law and use this to make the system better. “