In final campaign push, Stefanowski focuses on police accountability law

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In his final campaign push, one of Bob Stefanowski’s main closing messages to Connecticut voters is closely mirroring that of Republicans running for elected office in states such as Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, among other parts of the country: crime is an out of control problem and Democrats are to blame.

It's a message that ignores statistics, which in Connecticut show that crime has been on a downward trend for decades, and focuses instead on people's perception of public safety. Stefanowski, the Republican nominee for governor, has often said he hasn't come across one voter on the campaign trail who feels safer now than they did four years ago.

The governor, and other Democrats, have repeatedly dismissed Stefanowski's claims as fearmongering and have emphasized the aim of the law is to hold bad officers accountable and increase trust in law enforcement. They have pointed to investments in recruitment and training for police. 

“Stefanowski continues to fear monger and mischaracterize or simply doesn’t understand the legislation that was passed and continues to falsely claim that qualified immunity has been eliminated as a defense to police misconduct in Connecticut. That is wrong,” Rep. Steve Stafstrom, D-Bridgeport, one of the main architects of the policing accountability bill, said in a recent interview.

The GOP targeting Democrats as soft on crime is nothing new but in the waning days of the campaign Stefanowski, like other Republicans, is leaning on the issue as a way to appeal to independents and suburban women whose votes could tip the race in his favor. He’s highlighted his support from law enforcement while simultaneously claiming Democrats have made it harder and less safe for them to do their jobs.   

At a press conference in Hartford earlier this week to announce the endorsement of the city's police union, Stefanowski once again evoked the recent shooting deaths of two Bristol police officers but stopped short of connecting the police accountably law with their deaths. 

“I can only assume he doesn’t support police,” Stefanowski said of Lamont. “I can only assume that after the tragedy we saw in Bristol, he doesn’t want to make any changes."

He’s called for Lamont and Rob Hotaling, Independent Party candidate for governor, to disavow portions of the police accountability law related to police immunity, consent searches and use of force. 

“The only instance in which a police officer would face personal liability in Connecticut is where they wantonly, recklessly or intentionally violated an individual’s civil rights, and in fact those instances are so rare that despite his best efforts for the last three years now, Mr. Stefanowski cannot point to even one single instance where a police officer has been sued under the new police accountability law,” Stafstrom said. "Because there isn’t one."

Republicans receiving endorsements from police unions is a fairly new trend, according to Mike Lawlor, a professor of criminal justice at the University of New Haven and former Gov. Dannel Malloy’s criminal justice advisor. Top issues for police unions have traditionally been job security, pay, pensions, and other benefits -- issues that historically have led them to support Democrats, known for their pro-labor stances. "It was very recent times that it switched over to focusing on other issues such as social policy," Lawlor said. 

In some cases, union leadership are contributing to spread of misinformation on what the police accountability law does and doesn't do. "A lot of rank-and-file police offices have been seriously misled by some of their union officials about the police accountability bill," Lawlor said. "For example, one of the talking points, in fact the main talking point that police unions are using is that accountability bill now exposes police officers to quote Bob Stefanowski “to losing everything they have” and that’s completely false."

Long-standing laws in Connecticut, unchanged by the bill, make it very clear that should a police officer be sued, and if any money is going to be paid, it must be paid by the town, city or state that employs the police officer, Lawlor said.

Morale is low among police officers across the country, with many in law enforcement feeling they are being "unfairly criticized and labeled as racists," Lawlor said – Stefanowski and other Republicans are tapping into that. 

In announcing the Hartford Police Union's support for Stefanowski and his running mate, state Rep. Laura Devlin, R-Fairfield, president Anthony Rinaldi said this week: "Bob and Laura are willing to sit down and work with law enforcement and make changes to that police accountability bill. Those changes are needed to revive the law enforcement career."