By Katheryn Quijada-Polanco
The man was unconscious. He’d been beaten and robbed. Nick Sutter, then a young detective in Princeton, feared he’d never catch the person who did it. That wasn’t because the attacker’s identity was unknown — the victim’s family knew exactly who was responsible. But they were undocumented immigrants from Guatemala and terrified that, if they talked to police, they’d be deported.
Sutter is now Princeton’s chief of police. That case, in particular, helped shape how he wants his officers to police immigrant and minority communities: by gaining their trust instead of instilling fear.
In many crimes, Sutter recently told The Princeton Summer Journal, victims are targeted “specifically because of their immigration status and their perceived hesitation to cooperate with law enforcement.” He added, “we’ve been trying to overcome that stigma with our community for a long time.”
Several recent incidents have made Sutter’s job harder. In 2016, Imani Perry, a Princeton African-American studies professor, was pulled over for speeding and then arrested on a warrant for unpaid parking violations. Perry’s account of being searched by a white male officer and handcuffed to a table at the police station made national headlines. Then, earlier this year, amid a national debate over officer-involved shootings, a mentally-troubled veteran named Scott L. Mielentz charged into a Panera Bread near the university with a bb gun. After an hours-long standoff, state troopers fatally shot him. “When a life is taken it’s not something that you get over quickly,” Sutter said.
Sutter lamented the mistrust between some residents and law enforcement—he said he became an officer to protect those who can’t protect themselves and shared several ideas for how to fix this. First, expand the department’s inventory of less-lethal weapons such as bean bags, tasers, batons, and pepper spray to better help officers disarm unstable people.
Sutter also wants his officers to wear body cameras to show the public that they’re trustworthy. He also plans to continue to diversify the department.
After all, he only solved the case of the man beaten into coma because someone from the Guatemalan community convinced the family to talk.