The Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office has closed its investigation into the arrest of Princeton University Professor Imani Perry and has found that the police officer who pulled her over for speeding and arrested her because she had an outstanding court warrant for unpaid parking tickets did nothing wrong. Perry was also driving with a suspended Pa. license.
Perry canceled a meeting with the prosecutor’s office and never rescheduled. The prosecutor’s office gave her a few weeks to reschedule, but phone calls and a letter from the office to Perry went unanswered.
“We have closed our review of the matter,” said Casey DeBlasio, the spokeswoman for the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office. “A few weeks ago, we stated that our office’s review found that the officer’s conduct was to be commended, not criticized.”
Perry never filed a complaint with the office, or came forward with any additional evidence to be considered, DeBlasio said. “After we reached out to her, we’ve closed our case with that determination.
The incident took place on Feb. 6. The following day, Perry described her arrest on social media, and said her race was not incidental to her treatment. She detailed how she was patted down by a male officer, was not allowed to make a call before being taken to the police station, and was handcuffed to a table while she was processed.
On Feb. 9, Princeton University President Christopher Eisgruber issued a statement about the incident, supporting Perry and calling for an investigation. The African American Studies Department at the school also issued a statement, as did the Black Justice League, the student group that led a sit-in an Nassau Hall last November demanding that the school remove Woodrow Wilson’s name from school buildings because of his racist views.
“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 wrote a second letter the following day thanking Princeton University community members who offered support to Perry.
“The town has initiated an independent investigation through the Mercer County Prosecutor’s office,” read the statement. “We will continue to encourage our local officials to conduct as thorough and fair a review as possible, and to look not only at what occurred during this particular incident, but more generally at the principles, guidelines, and values that govern law enforcement as well as other forms of civic engagement in our community.”
On Feb. 10, police released the video of the Perry arrest requested by Planet Princeton using the state’s Open Public Records Act. Many who watched the video felt the recording showed a routine stop, and many viewers felt the officer was courteous.
Princeton area residents wrote letters to the editors and called radio show hotlines demanding that Eisgruber issue an apology for his statements. Readers said Eisgruber should have waited to get all the facts before issuing a statement.
Asked recently if Eisgruber would be issuing another statement or would like to clarify his previous statements, a spokesperson for Princeton University said there would be no further statement at that stage.
Perry has not commented about the investigation and her reasons for not speaking to the prosecutor about the incident. An Evernote post she wrote after the video was released titled “The End” was her last commentary on the issue. In the note, she said she never claimed her police stop and arrest involved racial bias .
The full text of “The End”:
This afternoon I received yet another call from a media outlet. This one was from a reporter who stated “The Prosecutor’s Office says you didn’t show up for a meeting on Wednesday and that they will close the investigation into your arrest if you don’t reschedule in the near future.”
My first response was to be upset. I wasn’t a no show! I’d called and asked to postpone the meeting Although I honestly can’t be certain that this information was communicated to me correctly, it felt like yet another effort to discredit me. Then I thought to myself: That’s ok, I’m fine with the investigation being closed. So be it. That wasn’t the point anyway.
I shared several tweets about my experience being arrested last week. The arresting officer told me he was arresting me for a three year old parking ticket. I am an African American female professor at Princeton. As a result, the episode soon spiraled into a media event, which I attempted to avoid engaging at every turn. So I wrote a public statement rather than accepting the countless requests for interviews. And yet the stories kept growing far beyond my intention or message. I tried to respond here and there. However, I want to return to the two major points of the statement I wrote as I end my discussion of this event. They are:
I do not believe municipalities should generate revenue by using the police power to arrest. Taxes and fines should not be executed through physical coercion. As the justice department challenges Ferguson, Missouri to cease such practices– ones that create modern day debtors prisons in poor communities– it is worthwhile to raise questions about the practice generally, including in affluent suburbs.
I was terrified when I was pulled over, and then when I was arrested, because in this country police practices are racially discriminatory. There is a mountain of research to support this assertion. It isn’t up for debate. Moreover, over the past year and a half as a nation we have watched the footage of multiple deaths of unarmed African Americans at the hands of police officers. The majority of the time there is no remedy for these deaths. This effectively grants police the authority to act with impunity. It may be hard to imagine for people who are not Black and/or Latinx, but this social reality produces terror for many of us when we encounter police officers, regardless of how they behave.
While I disagree with a number of the statements made by the Princeton Police about what transpired, and the video footage that the police chose to share with the general public failed to show most of what I objected to, a dispute over details is a distraction from the focus I have had from the start. I am removing myself from all engagements that sustain that distraction. Additionally, the officers have emphasized that their actions were consistent with standard protocol. But I don’t disagree with them on that point. I never did.
My point is this: regardless of whether it is consistent with standard procedure and protocol, I should not have been handcuffed to a table for a parking ticket. Moreover, if it were five parking tickets I should not have been handcuffed to a table. A parking ticket is not an indication that a person poses a physical threat. The “pat down” for weapons that I experienced at the hands of a male officer also did not make sense as I did not pose a physical threat and I was not stopped on suspicion of posing a violent threat to anyone.
And here is the point that goes far beyond my story: Perhaps if police officers were not authorized and encouraged to arrest people for small violations then Eric Garner and Sandra Bland would still be alive. The fact that state legislatures and municipalities and even many citizens approve of these forms of arrest acceptable does not mean they are wise. The evidence to the contrary is readily apparent. We must ask: Does selling loose cigarettes warrant a death sentence? What about a moving violation?
Procedures and protocols are tools not gospel. Their value is not an abstraction. Their value is only realized by virtue of what they can produce. It is not enough for something to be “the rule” for it to be counted as morally right or consistent with democratic principles. It was once against the law for my ancestors to read, to own property, to sit in the front of the bus. Hence, rules must be evaluated as to whether they meet standards of justice. Warrants for parking tickets do not meet such standards.
We have evidence that warrants for violations are issued across the country in racially discriminatory fashion. This makes it even worse: it is both unjust and unjustly applied. Note: I have never said that in my case that there was necessarily racial bias at work. I could not possibly know whether that was at issue. But I do know that I belong to the racial group to which this happens more frequently than any other.
Moreover, as a consequence of the attention my words received in the media I have been subject to hundreds upon hundreds of racial slurs, gender slurs, threats and insults on social media, by telephone, on conservative blogs, and via email. I have witnessed this happen previously to social justice activists and public intellectual. Sadly I’m sure I will witness this happen to many others in the future. The far right cyber-mob follows a choreography of obsessive attack that steadily moves from one target to another. And while we have a rather robust conversation about bullying when it comes to children, the concerted bullying efforts engaged in by members of the far right goes generally unchecked in our public sphere. While their actions might formally be consistent with principles of free speech, they are completely inconsistent with the ideal of open and healthy political discourse. Instead their actions chill speech.
I titled this note “The End” because I do not intend to speak on this incident in public any longer. In the past several days I have found myself hampered in my regular political and intellectual engagements as a result of the public focus on this incident and in particular the focus on me. This is not an orientation I embrace. I’m a thinker and a writer, not a celebrity.
But, at the risk of sounding like I’m giving an awards speech I do want to thank some people. I want to thank the Princeton University community, and in particular the extraordinary faculty and staff of the Department of African American Studies, President Eisgruber, Dean Prentice, my amazing past and present students, and the many colleagues and University staff who offered words and deeds of support and circled me with protection. In addition, I was sustained by the supportive letters and notes of hundreds of professors at other universities as well as many activists, writers, lawyers, artists, members of my various communities, as well as friends and family.
I also want to thank members of the Princeton Township and broader Central New Jersey community who shared stories of similar circumstances to mine with different outcomes, as well as observations of racial disparities in policing.
But I especially want to say a word for the dozens of people who sent me their stories of being arrested. Many people shared that they were afraid or ashamed to tell others what happened. I do not blame them. I thank them for entrusting me with their vulnerability and for simply saying “I’ve been there too and I felt the same way.”