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A black Princeton professor says she was handcuffed to a table for her unpaid parking ticket

A view of Princeton University’s East Pyne. (Mahlon Lovett /Princeton University Office of Communications)

A professor at Princeton University wrote about her arrest last weekend for what she said was a three-year-old parking ticket, sparking debate on social media between those who see it as an example of racist behavior by police and others who believe it was an overreaction to a minor incident.

Her account tapped into the national conversation over police treatment of black people that has led to protests, including demonstrations at Princeton and many other colleges.

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It reminded some of the 2009 arrest of prominent Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. when he tried to force open the door of his own home.

Harvard scholar arrested after neighbors call police

But others pushed back, saying that the scrutiny of police actions and tensions over race make officers’ already dangerous jobs even more difficult.

Imani Perry, a professor of African American studies at Princeton who earned her doctorate and law degrees at Harvard, told this story online:

Nicholas Sutter, chief of the Princeton Police Department, said: “We’re having it investigated by our prosecutors’ office to be totally transparent and objective. We’ll make any changes to our protocol if deemed necessary.”

He doesn’t anticipate any changes, though. Sutter said he has reviewed the video and thought the officers responded fairly and in accordance with policies.

Perry was stopped Saturday morning for driving 67 mph on a street with a  45 mph limit, he said, at which time officers found an outstanding warrant for her arrest for two unpaid tickets.

Under New Jersey law, if there’s an active warrant, officers are required to take the person into custody, he said. She was handcuffed, as is everyone taken into custody, he said, and she was searched.

“It’s common, it’s not intrusive,” he said. “I understand the perception and concern but it was well within policy.

“I totally understand, any time someone is arrested it’s traumatic – I totally understand perceptions, and I’m very sympathetic to perceptions” that officers may treat people differently based on their race, he added.  “A police officer has an extremely difficult job in this atmosphere but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s something we have to adapt to. We’re doing a lot of community outreach, and being extremely transparent. … We’re open to discussion and critique — it’s a healthy conversation.”

The Daily Princetonian first reported the story.

Perry declined to comment Monday. On Tuesday, she said that she asked the officer what the issue was and he told her it was for a single unpaid parking ticket — not two.

Susan Shapiro, the municipal court administrator, said two tickets were issued, one in November 2012 and one in December 2012 for parking violations, and the warrant was issued in March 2013.

The chair of the African American studies department did not immediately have time to comment, but the department’s Twitter account posted a link to a statement from Perry, “My encounter with Princeton police & the aftermath.

It read, in part:

The response I have received since sharing my story has been overwhelmingly caring and thoughtful. 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.
In every profession, as in every life endeavor, 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, people in this society consistently disadvantage Black people compared to others. (And all things are rarely equal, but that is another matter.)
… We already know it IS the standard protocol for people in poor Black, Indigenous, and Latino communities to experience disproportionate police surveillance, harassment, violence, and punishment. That is the graver injustice. 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.
This was my first time in handcuffs. They were very cold on my arthritic wrists.

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This post has been updated.