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Stefanowski and Lamont clash on crime, police accountability in CT

Bob Stefanowski at the Hartford Police Union office. At left, the union's president, Anthony Rinaldi.
Bob Stefanowski at the Hartford Police Union office. At left, the union's president, Anthony Rinaldi.

Republican Bob Stefanowski on Monday amped up his insistence that police are under siege and the state’s low crime rate is a mirage, a line of attack Gov. Ned Lamont called inaccurate and inflammatory.

“Crime is out of control in Connecticut. We all know it,” Stefanowski said at a press conference publicizing his endorsement by police unions in Hartford, Bridgeport, Stamford and other cities. It was his third crime-related press conference in a week.

Stefanowski said he intends to press Lamont at their final debate Tuesday night to disavow elements of a police accountability law pertaining to liability and standards for warrantless searches and use of force, a position pushed with greater urgency since the murders of two Bristol police officers.

“I can only assume he doesn’t support police,” Stefanowski said. “I can only assume that after the tragedy we saw in Bristol, he doesn’t want to make any changes. We can either talk about it at the debate tomorrow night, because I guarantee you it’s going to come up, or you can come back with a statement in advance.”

Trailing by six points in his own polling and by as much as 15 points in independent surveys, Stefanowski increasingly is using the shooting deaths of the Bristol police officers to contrast his support from police unions with Lamont’s role in the accountability law that many of them oppose.

Lamont said in an interview that he stands by his support for the police accountability law as a measure to increase trust in law enforcement, not endanger it. The Democratic incumbent said he resents Stefanowski’s suggestion that his signature on the law makes him anti-police, a claim he considers incendiary.

“I don’t think that’s helpful at all,” Lamont said. “But I think the bipartisan crime bill, I think the accountability bill, are about making policing better, because it builds trust — builds trust in our police.”

The bipartisan bill passed this year was aimed at combating car thefts by juveniles. It streamlines juvenile prosecutions, gives Superior Court judges the option to put minors on GPS monitoring, broadens police access to minors’ records and increases how long children can be detained.

Stefanowski is following a national trend of Republicans emphasizing crime in the runup to the Nov. 8 election.

An NBC analysis of ads in gubernatorial and congressional races found that Democrats remained focused on abortion in campaign ads, while Republicans have shifted from inflation to crime. Connecticut polls have found economic issues are of greater concern than either abortion or crime.

Two years ago, when the accountability law was passed, the public was reeling from video of three police officers in Minneapolis failing to intervene when a fourth, Derek Chauvin, knelt for more than 9 minutes on the neck of a handcuffed Black man, George Floyd.

Stefanowski acknowledged the outrage generated by the video of Floyd dying, including protests in Connecticut. He said the criminal prosecution of Chauvin and the other officers was justified, but he did not believe the Floyd case reflected on law enforcement in Connecticut.

“If that happened in Connecticut, different story,” Stefanowski said. “But I’ll tell you, the other emotional moment was sitting in that funeral two weeks ago, actually standing at that funeral, and watching the family come in, walking into that stadium and watching the caskets go by,” Stefanowski said, referring to the funerals for the Bristol officers. “That’s an emotional moment, too.”

Stefanowski hedges on how the police accountability law may have contributed to the deaths of Lt. Dustin DeMonte and Sgt. Alex Hamzy, who police say were shot to death in an ambush by a man armed with a weapon that rapidly fired 80 rounds. Sources say the weapon was an AR-15 or similar rifle.

“Get those semi-automatic weapons that shot, whatever it was, 80 rounds in a minute, off the street,” Lamont said. “That would really make a difference. And talk to every cop that I do — they tell me that.”

Stefanowski declines to say if he would favor banning their possession in Connecticut. Sales of AR-15s, other military-style weapons and large-capacity magazines are banned, but their possession is legal if they were purchased prior to the ban and are registered.

“Bob Stefanowski’s attempt to politicize the tragedy in Bristol is as offensive as it is ineffective,” said Jake Lewis, a spokesman for the Lamont campaign. “Stefanowski may put on a show for the cameras, but Gov. Lamont shows up for the people on the front lines.”

Stefanowski’s current ad on television features Kris O’Donnell, the wife of a Farmington police officer, who blames the police accountability law for the injuries he suffered a year ago when pinned to his cruiser by a car driven by a suspect in catalytic converter thefts. She says in the ad she regrets voting for Lamont.

At a press conference with Stefanowski last week, she said she believes her husband hesitated to shoot at the oncoming car for fear of personal liability in a civil suit.

Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, a lead sponsor of the accountability bill, noted that the standard for fatal force is unchanged in instances where an officer’s life is at risk.

“The bill is clear in the instance where your life is being threatened, that you’re being crushed by a vehicle, your life is being threatened, that you can take action,” Winfield said, “It’s crystal clear there.”

Winfield said the accountability law was not solely a response to the outrage and protest. Legislators had been debating standards for policing, including use of force, since 2015, but Floyd’s death changed the political environment, he said.

“As a state that has been leading this, there are things we know we need to do, and we should use the fact that people are paying attention to do that now,” Winfield said.

House Minority Leader Vincent J. Candelora, R-North Branford, whose caucus voted nearly as a bloc against the law, said Winfield capitalized on the moment.

“The approach that I think Gary Winfield took was, ‘Don’t let a crisis go to waste,’” Candelora said. “And so, rather than addressing the issues that came out of George Floyd and preventing them from occurring in Connecticut, there was a broad brush approach that I think a lot of people have buyer’s remorse on. The bill in its entirety wasn’t a terrible bill.”

A central provision in the measure was a direct response to the Floyd case: It creates a statutory duty for a police officer to stop and report misconduct by another police officer. Failure to act exposes an officer to the same criminal and civil liability as the officer committing the wrongdoing.

Stefanowski has not said whether he favors that provision.

Anthony Rinaldi, the president of the Hartford Police Union, said he did not object to the duty to report and intervene.

“If they saw an officer acting outside the color of law, my membership would step up and do something about that. So I don’t think that even had to be in the law,” Rinaldi said. “But I think it’s one of those things that we’re not terribly concerned with right now.”

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