A black Yale alumna has elicited national attention over her claim that police officers mistreated her during a traffic stop because of her race.
Imani Perry ’94, an African American Studies professor at Princeton University, was pulled over by the Princeton Police Department on her way to work the morning of Feb. 6 for driving 67 mph in a 45-mph zone. A routine check on her license revealed that a warrant had been issued for her arrest and her driver’s license had been suspended in connection with two unpaid parking violations from 2013. Perry wrote in a public Facebook post last Monday that the two white police officers did not allow her to send a text message or make a call to inform coworkers of her arrest, and that the officers handcuffed her to a table at the police station. She also said she was patted down by a male police officer even though the other officer present was female.
“The police treated me inappropriately and disproportionately,” Perry wrote. “The fact of my blackness is not incidental to this matter.”
Perry did not respond to a request for comment. She also declined to speak to The New York Times, which first reported her story on Feb. 9, and she has not spoken publicly about the incident other than in her Facebook post, a string of tweets and a follow-up statement published Feb. 12 on the application Evernote.
Still, in her social-media posts, she described how her race affected her experience with the police.
“I was terrified when I was pulled over, and then when I was arrested, because in this country police practices are racially discriminatory,” she wrote in the Evernote post. “There is a mountain of research to support this assertion. It isn’t up for debate.”
A dashcam video released on Feb. 11 by the police department confirmed that the officers had not allowed Perry to make a call or send a text message before being taken to the station. In the 27-minute video, the search is conducted out of the camera’s view and some parts of the audio are muffled by the sound of passing cars.
Representatives from the Princeton Police Department could not be reached for comment Monday. However, Capt. Nicholas Sutter, the department chief, told The New York Times last week that the video did not show anything unusual, adding that official policy does not require female officers to search female suspects.
Delores Jones-Brown, a former assistant prosecutor in New Jersey and a professor in the Department of Law, Police Science and Criminal Justice Administration at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said the police always have discretion to be as enforcement-oriented as they need to be, depending on the situation. Jones-Brown said allowing Perry to send a text or make a phone call would have simply been an act of courtesy by the officers and is not a part of official protocol.
But she noted that handcuffing was also not a necessary part of protocol, given the nature of Perry’s offense.
“They could have not handcuffed her once they determined that the outstanding warrant was not for a serious offense,” she said.
In the dashcam video, police tell Perry that they handcuff everyone they arrest and transport.
Perry’s comments have reignited a debate over the role of racial profiling in policing across the United States. Her reports set off heated dialogue on Twitter, with many users contacting Perry with personal attacks, according to her Facebook post.
Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway, a scholar of post-emancipation African-American history, said it seemed odd that Perry would be handcuffed for a traffic violation. When asked how Perry’s story relates to other instances of alleged police brutality, including the experience of Tahj Blow ’16, a black student who was forced to the ground at gunpoint by a Yale Police officer last year, Holloway said the incidents are “part of a national conversation.”
“We’re paying attention to these issues,” Holloway said. “When it comes to university police and how they treat their constituencies, there is great variation in how they act and there are different levels of quality of training.”
Many in the Princeton community have rallied to Perry’s side.
Janice Fine, a white Rutgers University professor, told a local television station that when she was arrested in Princeton in 2010 for driving with a suspended license — the same offense for which Perry was arrested — the police treated her completely differently. Fine said officers never handcuffed her and went out of their way to be helpful. The only differentiating factor in the two cases was race, she said. Fine declined to comment further to the News.
Olivia Lloyd, a senior at Princeton, expressed sympathy for Perry. Lloyd said she first learned of the incident from a Facebook friend who shared Perry’s response to the incident. She added that she was appalled at the account and that to her, the incident seemed to be yet another example of institutionalized racism and inappropriate use of force by the police.
Perry’s colleagues have also expressed public support for her position, with Princeton University President Christopher Eisgruber penning a letter to the college’s student newspaper in which he wrote that he had been in contact with local authorities about his worries.
“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,” Eisgruber wrote.
Perry is the author of two books, including “More Beautiful and More Terrible: The Embrace and Transcendence of Racial Inequality in the United States.”