Bob Stefanowski Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

OLD SAYBROOK – Connecticut gubernatorial candidates offered competing takes on crime, police accountability, and the state’s COVID-19 response Tuesday during a forum organized by an association of police, firefighters, and emergency management personnel.  

Gov. Ned Lamont and his Republican challenger Bob Stefanowski separately addressed a gathering of the Connecticut Emergency Management Association during a waterfront candidate forum at Saybrook Point Marina. Green Party candidate Michelle Bicking had been scheduled to speak but canceled, according to organizers. 

Both candidates tailored their respective stump speeches for their audience. Collectively the association represents more than 30,000 emergency services workers in Connecticut. 

Stefanowski, who led off the mid-day event, used some of his time to highlight instances of violent crime in Connecticut. He said recent mass shootings had appropriately garnered attention from public officials, but he worried they overshadowed violence that takes place every day.

“The triple homicide in Hartford or the 2-year-old kid getting shot in Waterbury is as important to Connecticut as anything else,” Stefanowski said. “We need to mind our own backyard and make sure that we clamp down on it here and that involves resourcing law enforcement and first responders who do their job, giving them respect.”

The Republican from Madison also called for changes to the 2020 police accountability law, which included a provision limiting the circumstances when police could use qualified immunity as a defense in a lawsuit.

“In my opinion, the police accountability bill, which took away qualified immunity, should be changed,” Stefanowski said.

Gov. Ned Lamont chats with members of the Connecticut Emergency Management Association Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

Lamont also touched on police accountability policies during his remarks, specifically a provision that goes into effect on Friday requiring officers interacting with the public to wear body cameras. Early on, Lamont said he heard pushback from law enforcement on wearing the cameras. However, he said he expected the cameras would highlight the good work done by cops.

“I like to think people in Connecticut appreciate that our police are doing a pretty good job. Maybe these cameras remind them every day the hell you go through what you do for our communities,” Lamont said.

Following the event, Old Saybrook Police Chief Michael Spera, who served as the forum’s emcee, said that the police accountability law was one of several issues on the minds of members of Connecticut’s law enforcement and public safety communities. However, Spera said Tuesday’s event was not about picking sides or endorsing candidates. 

“Public safety professionals are political with a small ‘p,’” Spera said. “We have to be politically savvy enough to navigate the waters and make sure that we’re advocating for our own profession but because of the nature of our work, we’re unbiased — apolitical. Backing a candidate as a group, it’s not something that I think we’re terribly interested in doing. Making sure that our voices are heard is what’s most important.”

Both candidates touched on staffing at the Connecticut State Police, where the number of troopers has dwindled to 877 amid a wave of state employee retirements driven by a previously-negotiated change in the retirement benefits of state workers.

“That’s a problem,” Stefanowski said of the low staffing numbers. “We need to invest in law enforcement, we need to find a way to attract more recruits. We need to give law enforcement the tools that they need, we need to honor them, and we need to deliver on our promises.”

Bob Stefanowski talks with members of the media
Bob Stefanowski talks with members of the media Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

Lamont said his administration had been aggressively recruiting more state police. Between state and municipal departments, the governor said around 550 recruits were currently in training. According to his office, there are currently 38 state police recruits in training. Lamont joked about issuing an executive order to slow retirements. 

“If I could have one more — just one more executive order, please, just nobody retire if you’re younger than me, because we are having some retirements going on right now,” Lamont said. 

Members of the Connecticut Emergency Management Association also quizzed the candidates on what they would do to ensure the state was prepared for the next public health crisis. Stefanowski said he planned to run a more proactive state government. He criticized Lamont as not stockpiling enough masks for the pandemic. 

“This is an area where the corporate world is better than government: government is very reactive,” Stefanowski said. “‘Jeez, COVID just hit New York, maybe we should think about getting some masks, or ‘jeez, the hurricane is hitting tomorrow, maybe we should load up on spare food.’ We’ve got to be thinking three or six or nine months apart.”

Asked the same question, Lamont said Connecticut was hit hard in the early days of the pandemic. He said his administration worked hard to negotiate for more masks but often found the “cupboards were bare.”

“You want to know how we’re different now? I’ve got probably 10 million masks in the warehouse right now we have the PPE we need, we’ve got vaccinations,” Lamont said. “If I learned anything it is don’t rely on the supply chain from China, don’t rely on Washington DC when you get into a mess like that make sure you’ve got at least enough.”

After his remarks, Lamont lingered briefly at the event and chatted with members of the association while they ate lunch. He received praise at one table for his management of the state’s pandemic response. 

David Heiden, owner of Integrated Emergency Management Consulting, gave the governor a commemorative “challenge coin,” a commemorative medallion sometimes exchanged by military members. The coin was embossed with a picture of the COVID-19 virus.

“It’s a token of appreciation for the leadership he showed during the pandemic,” Heiden said of the coin.

Once the candidates had departed, Spera, the Old Saybrook police chief, said the event was a success. 

“This is the first time ever that representatives from all of Connecticut’s public safety professional associations have gathered collectively to meet the gubernatorial candidates. Never been done before,” Spera said. “When we are together as a team, and working collaboratively, we have a stronger voice.”