Greg Howard and State Rep. Kate Rotella

Policing Drives Race Between Howard, Rotella

The police accountability bill is at the forefront of the race between first-term incumbent State Rep. Kate Rotella, a Stonington Democrat, and her challenger Greg Howard, a Republican and longtime Stonington police detective.

Howard won the endorsement of the Republican Town Committee after Shaun Mastroianni withdrew from the race in early August.

After Rotella appeared at a protest outside of the Stonington Police Department and voting twice for policing bills, Mastroianni stepped aside to allow Howard to run, according to The Day.

In an interview with CT Examiner, Howard described himself as an expert on the police accountability bill, which he called “rushed and ill-advised.”

Howard said he sent an email to Rotella outlining “exactly how that bill came up far short of police transparency and accountability and did a lot to decimate the ability of law enforcement to do good, honorable police work to keep us safe.”

“I think that the real goal, from a legislative standpoint, should be to get the public to understand what the police actually do every day — because they don’t know, they are heavily misinformed. And, get the police to understand that the public is misinformed as to what [the police] do,” Howard said.

If elected, he said he would support the return of consent searches — as of October 1, provisions in the police accountability bill passed in special session prohibit police from requesting to search a car if the driver has been pulled over solely for a motor vehicle violation.

Howard said that aside from the high cost, he also supports the use of dash and body cameras. He said that allowing the public to see police work and actual incidents, would help build public trust.

According to Howard, especially in light of Black Lives Matter protests, it is important to find balance and common ground, which he said could be accomplished through dialogue and education. 

“I think that the real goal, from a legislative standpoint, should be to get the public to understand what the police actually do every day — because they don’t know, they are heavily misinformed. And, get the police to understand that the public is misinformed as to what [the police] do,” Howard said. “I really thought that my professional experience and my character, [that I’m] the type of person that could run, get elected and stand there and say, ‘Okay, stop that, just everyone stop with this right now and let’s start listening to one another. Let’s find the common ground that does exist that we’re not even talking about and work from there.’”

“This language also said that no officer has to pay out of his pocket for a lawsuit. The town is on the hook for that, unless they are proven in a court of law to have engaged in a highly willful, wanton, and highly egregious act … and then the town could go after the officer,” Rotella said. “I do want to be clear about that  — it doesn’t eliminate qualified immunity for people who act in good faith.”

Rotella said that compromise language in the bill did not repeal qualified immunity, but instead reformed it, and at no cost to officers acting in good faith.

“This language also said that no officer has to pay out of his pocket for a lawsuit. The town is on the hook for that, unless they are proven in a court of law to have engaged in a highly willful, wanton, and highly egregious act … and then the town could go after the officer,” Rotella said. “I do want to be clear about that  — it doesn’t eliminate qualified immunity for people who act in good faith.”

According to Rotella, the bill returns qualified immunity to the version that existed in 1967, which she said, “protected officers who make reasonable mistakes.” 

Rotella said the police accountability bill also provides police officers with more training and more access to counseling, as well as providing body and dashboard cameras. 

“This is an emotional subject for people. And again, for me, as you know, my opponent is running against me based on this bill and this bill alone. The officers feel like this was against them and it wasn’t against them. This was not about being against officers. It was about helping officers. As I said, the vast majority of officers are capable and they’re caring and they’re compassionate and they work so hard,” she said.

Rotella was elected to the state legislature in 2018 and currently serves on Appropriations, Finance and Education committees. She aslo works as a purchasing manager for the Capitol Region Education Council. She previously served as Stonington selectmen for three years and was vice chair of the K-12 building committee.She has a 17-year-old son and has lived in Stonington for more than 20 years. 

“We should be sourcing within our own circle because that feeds our economy and makes the items more accessible to us,” Rotella said. “And that brings more opportunity for Connecticut and to people who want to start small businesses in Connecticut. There are things that we will always need here in Connecticut and if we could get people manufacturing or involved in those things, that would be really great.”

Rotella said her experience as a purchasing manager responsible for buying and sourcing PPE during COVID has highlighted the need for the state — and the country — to become more self-reliant.

“We should be sourcing within our own circle because that feeds our economy and makes the items more accessible to us,” Rotella said. “And that brings more opportunity for Connecticut and to people who want to start small businesses in Connecticut. There are things that we will always need here in Connecticut and if we could get people manufacturing or involved in those things, that would be really great.”

Rotella, who wants to see increased testing capabilities in the state, said the pandemic has hit tourism-based industries that her district depends on especially hard.

“For COVID, I’m hoping we can get a vaccine also. I think we’ve done a fantastic job in this state, and that is kudos to everyone in this state for playing by the rules and for trying so hard. For the vast majority of people, everybody has tried. Everybody is working hard and that shows in our numbers and our response rates,” she said. 

According to Rotella, her priorities continue to be affordable, accessible healthcare for everyone, keeping down to prescription costs, helping seniors and veterans, and supporting nursing homes and assisted living with the necessary tools to serve those populations. 

Rotella said she was proud to have passed legislation providing state coverage for preexisting conditions, a bill that normalized co-pays for mental health visits, a cap on insulin prices, a bill that reopened the state’s welcome centers, and a bill that fills in the gap between grants so that qualified residents can attend community college for free. 

“And as a person who played football in my life, I realized that that sport and team sports in general are important for youth,” Howard said. “I started realizing there’s a lot of kids in town that really need to be on a football field and be around those positive role models, but their parents wouldn’t bring them because of the cost, so we converted our league to play for free.”

Howard, 40, is a life-long area resident who grew up in Westerly and spent his weekends at this grandparents’ home in Pawcatuck. As a teenager he worked as an EMT and was hired by the Stonington Police Department at age 22. He bought his first home in Pawcatuck in 2003, married in 2008 and has two boys 11 and 9. He became a detective on the force in 2015. 

A few years ago, he became president of Stonington Youth Football league, which also includes North Stonington and said he was proud to have reduced the fee for participating from $125 per player to zero. 

“And as a person who played football in my life, I realized that that sport and team sports in general are important for youth,” Howard said. “I started realizing there’s a lot of kids in town that really need to be on a football field and be around those positive role models, but their parents wouldn’t bring them because of the cost, so we converted our league to play for free.”

He said the league started off with outdated equipment, but three years later has players in brand new helmets and jerseys. 

“We fund our program through a pretty conservative budget and watching every penny we spend and a lot of donations and a lot of hard work from a core group of parents,” he said so I’m pretty proud of that,” he said. “We didn’t cut anything, we started the same program we always did. We just got better about how we spent the money.”

“[Tolling is] a perfect example of what happens in Hartford. They take money from the special transportation fund and use it to fix holes in the budget, not always on the roads, and come back to the taxpayers and businesses and say, okay, we need this new tax — they call it a toll — but it’s another financial burden that goes to the state because they mismanage the money,” Howard said. “Is it good smart money? That’s what I say to my football board all the time — is this good smart money because if we’re going to spend it, we need it to be good smart money.”

Howard said he would use the same philosophy when making decisions about the state budget.  It wasn’t about cutting, but about making programs more cost effective, he said. “What I’m saying is you can find ways to do things cheaper.”

As far as raising revenue, Howard said he was opposed to tolls and wanted to see greater accountability in state funding. 

“That’s a perfect example of what happens in Hartford. They take money from the special transportation fund and use it to fix holes in the budget, not always on the roads, and come back to the taxpayers and businesses and say, okay, we need this new tax — they call it a toll — but it’s another financial burden that goes to the state because they mismanage the money,” Howard said. “Is it good smart money? That’s what I say to my football board all the time — is this good smart money because if we’re going to spend it, we need it to be good smart money.”

“I don’t know that I could blindly say what should be cut and what shouldn’t be cut without looking at a budget. I think that would be irresponsible of me, but I would say that I think we have to examine each thing really carefully,” Rotella said. 

Rotella acknowledged the state will face some fiscal constraints because of COVID, but said she wouldn’t comment on budget cuts she hadn’t seen yet. 

“I don’t know that I could blindly say what should be cut and what shouldn’t be cut without looking at a budget. I think that would be irresponsible of me, but I would say that I think we have to examine each thing really carefully,” Rotella said. 

Rotella said she was in favor of workforce development programs that help businesses get started and said that getting people into the pipeline for these programs will be a stimulus to the state economy and a way to avoid raising taxes. 

“That will start to spur and infuse the economy and hopefully there won’t be a need for [raising taxes]. I don’t think that taxing people as a way of raising revenue is the way to go right now,” Rotella said. “Do I think we have to cut expenses? Yes. Do I think we have to increase revenue? Yes. Do I know how we’re going to get there yet? Not until I see the whole, all the ingredients and I figure out how we’re going to mix it.”

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