Gubernatorial candidates address public safety leaders
Old Saybrook — Gov. Ned Lamont and Republican challenger Bob Stefanowski offered mostly dueling, though at times quite similar, perspectives on the state of public safety in Connecticut during a forum Tuesday.
The Connecticut Emergency Management Association hosted the event, which allowed half an hour for both Stefanowski and Lamont to make their case for governor in front of more than 60 firefighters, paramedics and police officers, and for these public safety officials to ask them questions, at the Saybrook Point event that started at 11 a.m. Green Party candidate Michelle Bicking also was scheduled to attend the event but withdrew at the last minute.
CEMA President and Old Saybrook police Chief Michael Spera reminded the candidates that the various attendees represented about 36,000 people working in public safety statewide.
Stefanowski outlined his priorities if elected, including civil preparedness, opioids and violence, among other concerns.
“Marijuana, it’s going to be legal, we can argue whether it’s a gateway drug or not, but I think we need to keep a real close eye on it,” Stefanowski said. “The results coming out of Nevada are very troublesome. And I think having that legalized is going to make your lives harder.”
Stefanowski specifically took issue with Lamont sharing a video on Twitter earlier this month with a country song recognizing that Connecticut legalized online gambling and marijuana:
“Back home we thank the governor for the blessings that we got,” the lyrics go. “We can gamble on the internet, and it’s cool to smoke some pot.”
“I assume it was a joke, but I don’t think we should go around telling kids it’s cool to do drugs,” Stefanowski said.
The Madison businessman took the opportunity to criticize other legislation supported by Lamont, including the police accountability law passed in 2020 in response to the murder of George Floyd by Minnesota police.
“In my opinion, the police accountability bill, which took away qualified immunity, should be changed,” Stefanowski said. “You and the rest of the people in law enforcement and first responders and medical are putting your lives on the line every single day to keep us safe ... When I’m governor, we’re going to bring that back.”
During his remarks, Lamont said, “there’s a lot of confusion and questions” about the police accountability law.
“I did sign that. I think it gave people a great deal of confidence that the police were there, and nobody is held above the law,” he said. “I tried to be very strict to make sure it was an extraordinarily high bar. There were no cases brought under that police accountability bill when it comes to qualified immunity, and I think it’s one more reflection of the professionalism of our force."
"What you saw in Uvalde would not have happened in Connecticut," he said, referencing a May 24 mass shooting that killed 21 people at Robb Elementary School in Texas, where police are under heavy criticism for how they handled the incident. "Our police would not have allowed that to happen.”
When taking questions from the news media, Stefanowski seemed open to considering arming teachers as another school safety measure, saying it depends on the community.
“I think it’s a pretty dumb idea,” Lamont told reporters. “We’re asking our teachers to do so much right now ... I think we’re going to keep the schools safe, I don’t think arming teachers is the way to do it.”
Stefanowski clarified on Wednesday that he misheard the question during the news media scrum and thought the reporter was referring to arming school security officers, not teachers.
Stefanowski echoed the popular Republican talking point that it’s becoming harder to staff police departments as a result of the accountability law.
“We saw an announcement today from the state troopers; we’re supposed to have over 1,300 officers. They’ve got 950,” Stefanowski said. “And the statement that came out from the union president was that because of the massive retirements we’re going to see next week, he and his co-workers are concerned about the fundamental safety of Connecticut. We need to invest in law enforcement. We need to find a way to attract more recruits.”
Lamont thanked police for continuing to work during the COVID-19 pandemic, and also acknowledged the upcoming retirements that will cut down the state police force.
“The day I was elected governor, I said, ‘We’re going to add on additional classes of state police,’ the one place I have some authority,” Lamont said. “I’ve honored that commitment. That said ... we are having some retirements going on right now. That’s spread across state government. I’ll tell you some good news is the retirements are a lot less than we thought they might be. But retirements are still a place where I’ve got to do a better job, that’s why I’m so aggressive when it comes to recruiting our state police.”
“We’ve got about 550 folks in training right now between state and municipal police,” Lamont added.
Though Lamont has earned mostly positive reviews for the state’s response to the pandemic, Stefanowski said the state was not as prepared as it could have been. “I don’t think we did a good enough job protecting our first responders during COVID, I think we could’ve done better,” he said. “We should not have had nursing homes putting plastic bags on their bodies because they didn’t have gowns.”
Lamont said the state was not as prepared in the beginning “as we wish we were” but the rest of the country was in the same position.
Lamont touted the bipartisan juvenile justice law passed during the past legislative session. Many on the left criticized the legislation for going too far in politically driven “tough on crime” measures criminalizing youth and for not getting at the root causes of crime among young people in the state. But on Tuesday, Lamont hailed even its stricter provisions.
“These judges didn’t know whether (a case) was a first-time offender or a fifth-time offense, they know it now. They’re in the position to make sure we have the right way to get that, let’s say kid, back on the straight and true,” Lamont said. “Maybe if it’s something more severe — some of the carjackings we saw — we’ve got the mandatory ankle bracelets.”
Public safety leaders thanked Lamont for vetoing Senate Bill 204, which would have provided “that governmental immunity is not a defense in a civil action for damages to person or property caused by the negligent operation of a motor vehicle owned by a political subdivision of the state,” according to its summary. Lamont said he would veto anything similar that came to his desk.
New London fire Chief Thomas Curcio attended Tuesday’s event and was able to speak to Stefanowski following his remarks and Q&A period with public safety leaders. He said Stefanowski gave him his card to call him.
“I don’t want to come across as someone who is against volunteer firefighters at all, because that’s how I started out back in the 1970s ... but now, everyone is struggling,” Curcio said. “You have all these fire departments in Connecticut. They’ve regionalized dispatch, they’ve regionalized the animal control officers. What about regionalizing fire departments?”
Curcio said New London has always been there as a mutual aid backup for neighboring towns, but “What’s happening now is, fire departments are reaching out to us for an initial response.”
“They don’t have the manning, they don’t have the volunteers that are showing up,” Curcio said, pointing out that regionalization doesn’t mean no volunteer firefighters — “It just means you work together.”
“We rely on the (Naval Submarine Base) very heavily, they rely on us heavily, we rely on Poquonnock Bridge, Waterford, we’re calling Waterford all the time, and vice versa,” he said. “We’ve had some pretty serious fires, and you need people there within minutes, not a half hour.”