On the morning of Sept. 18, 2013, Princeton Councilwoman Jo Butler found herself at the new temporary Dinky station.
“I [walked] down to the Dinky parking, just because, as I’ve done multiple times, to talk to commuters, to see if they have any questions, to get the lay of the land,” Butler said.
“I thought [the town was] going to police that parking lot. And when I saw the landline, I thought well, nope, maybe we’re not going to police that parking lot,” Butler explained of her thinking at the time.
She proceeded to call 911 from her cell phone in an attempt to find out who had jurisdiction over the train terminus.
The call, like all 911 calls made from a cell phone, was sent out to a statewide dispatcher, who could not answer Butler’s questions about the jurisdiction of the call.
Concerns about the jurisdiction and the redirection of emergency phone calls on campus is not new. Earlier this year, the town police expressed confusion about the jurisdictional boundaries of the calls. In particular, officers have expressed confusion about calls made from landlines outside the University’s main campus but within University property, such as University Place, Washington Road and Nassau Street.
Currently, all 911 calls made from a University landline are redirected to DPS’s dispatch center, University Spokesperson Martin Mbugua said.
“One of the problems is, people think they are dialing the town’s 911 dispatcher when they make the call off-campus, but they aren’t,” Princeton Police Captain Nick Sutter told Planet Princeton following a town council meeting where the issue was discussed.
In an Agreement of Operating Procedures signed in May of this year, DPS and PPD defined their responsibilities for parts of the University campus and in the town of Princeton. But the agreement’s jurisdictional map was redacted for security reasons, both parties have said.
Butler said a Sept. 23 town council meeting had led her to believe that the Dinky would be monitored by the police, rather than by DPS. In the minutes of that meeting, however, Director of Community and Regional Affairs Kristin Appelget clarified that calls from cell phones were always directed to the municipal dispatch center.
In her 911 call that morning, Butler asked the dispatcher which agency she was calling, rather than reporting an emergency.
“Is this Public Safety or the Princeton Police?” she asked, according to a copy of the phone call obtained under New Jersey's Open Public Records Act.
When the dispatcher ignored her questions, Butler hung up. She was then called back by the dispatcher, confirming there was no emergency.
“I’m an elected official. I’m standing in the parking lot at the new Dinky station, and I simply wanted to know whether I’m calling the police,” Butler responded.
The dispatcher said he could not “give a jurisdictional boundary on 911,” explaining that it was a statewide system. After this, Butler hung up.
“Just trying to be helpful.”
Calling 911 with no apparent emergency is a fourth-degree indictable crime in New Jersey punishable by up to 18 months in prison and a $10,000 fine.
In response, the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office began an investigation, but ultimately chose not to file charges and instead issued a warning since this was Butler’s first infraction of this nature.
Prosecutor’s Office Spokeswoman Casey DeBlasio declined to comment for this article, citing that the investigation is now closed.
“It [was] never in my mind to pretend that I had any sort of emergency,” Butler explained.
In hindsight, she said she should not have made the call and has since apologized to Captain Sutter and the Mercer County prosecutor.
“I shouldn’t have called, but I called 911 because I wanted to see where the call went,” she explained. “If I’m the first person passing in an accident, I call 911. Or if I see a strange motorist, I call; if I see debris on the highway that I think is dangerous I call 911; if I see pets in the road, I call. These are all legitimate times I’ve called 911. I called when I saw a wounded deer in the road that I thought could be dangerous. You know, just trying to be helpful.”
According to Butler, the Agreement of Operating Procedures signed by the two law enforcement departments lies at the center of the confusion.
In October 2011, when the University first proposed building a new Arts & Transit Neighborhood, the University and Princeton Borough and Township drafted a memorandum of understanding outlining the University’s responsibilities regarding the Dinky station. This memorandum of understanding does not discuss police procedures related to the Dinky station or the surrounding parking lot.
However, in the published version of the 2013 agreement, both the map and the list of responsibilities were redacted so that the jurisdictions and responsibilities of DPS and PPD in the case of an emergency response were not made public.
Currently, 911 calls made from a cell phone go to a statewide dispatch system, which then forwards the calls to the appropriate jurisdiction based on information provided by the caller. The dispatcher will then determine how to best handle the call and whether to refer the matter to DPS or PPD. This judgment, Mbugua explained, largely “depends on the nature of the incident.”
Butler says this redaction, in her opinion, can cause confusion, particularly with incidents related to sexual assault or alcohol. About half of the customers who use the Dinky station are affiliated with the University; however, many commuters not affiliated with the University take the train as well. Many of them — especially females — Butler stated, expressed concerns to her over the safety of the Dinky station.
Sutter also said that portions of Agreement of Operating Procedures were redacted for security reasons. According to him, knowledge of police procedures “could be used for nefarious purposes.”
“So long as we’re not confused, and the University is not confused, there’s an express interest in public safety. We’re not confused as to jurisdiction and how we respond,” he added.
Although Butler said she did not have an opinion as to whether or not DPS or PPD should have jurisdiction, she did say that she believed the information should be public.
“I don’t know why it should be a secret who’s going to respond when there’s an emergency. I think people ought to know,” she said.