Chief seeks to build bridges

By Jesse Mendoza

South Gate, CA

Princeton Police Chief Nick Sutter understands why immigrant families might be fearful of the police. Sutter, a department veteran of 24 years, has always been aware of the possible disconnect between the police department and immigrant communities.

According to Sutter, immigrants are oftentimes wary of interacting with police because they fear deportation. Yet, Sutter is concerned how misconceptions of law enforcement can discourage and deter immigrants in the community from calling for help when in need.

Sutter recalls a situation in his career when an undocumented, Hispanic man was sent to the hospital after a gruesome beating left him horribly injured to the point of comatose.

Sutter tried to question the victim’s family to find possible leads. He was certain that the family knew who the culprit was, but the undocumented relatives resisted interacting with the police. Because Sutter understood why the family was fearful around investigators, he made the conscious decision to stop approaching the family and find alternative witnesses.

Despite the additional time and energy, Sutter was eventually able to find the culprit.

On a recent afternoon, Sutter walked into a Princeton classroom wearing a light blue suit and a gentle smile. Using a calm yet confident tone, he introduced himself as the Police Chief of Princeton, then sat down, maintaining his dominant stature. “If [an immigrant’s] child is sick,” Sutter said, “We don’t want them not to dial 9-1-1 because they are scared that we’re going to ask about their immigration status.”

Sutter is determined the change the perception that police might ask about immigration status not only for immigrants but for the wider Princeton community. Sutter has implemented procedures that are similar to sanctuary cities with policies that limit cooperation with the federal government in enforcing immigration law.

In Princeton, immigrants won’t be asked their citizenship status unless they’re arrested for a crime such as driving under the influence.

Sutter has also pushed for “community policing events,” where law enforcement can socialize with immigrants. Every squad on the force is required to participate in an event such as a car wash or barbeque to get to know the wider Princeton community.

Misconceptions aren’t only an issue for police officers and immigrants, but also a problem for doctors and politicians and professionals in other fields. Sutter knows that such perceptions are harmful and false and has made it his mission to change them.

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