Waterbury Mayoral Candidates Talk Crime and Punishment

Waterbury (Credit: Robin Breeding)


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WATERBURY — As Waterbury continues to see a sharp increase in crime – especially violent crimes – the three candidates vying for the top job of mayor offered their views on how to address the problem, views that ranged from hiring more officers, to community policing, to mentorship programs for the youth, to toughening sentencing guidelines.

Waterbury Mayor Neil O’Leary, a Democrat, has served as mayor since December 2011 and announced earlier this year that he wouldn’t seek another term.  

An increase in crime is not unique to Waterbury. Many medium and large-sized cities are reporting similar numbers. Waterbury has seen an increase in most violent crimes since 2022. 

As of July 18, the city has reported 13 murders compared to six at the same point in 2022. Comparing the first six months of 2022 to the first six months of 2023, Waterbury reported a 50 percent increase in rapes, from 4 to 6; a 92 percent increase in robberies, from 13 to 25; an 18 percent increase in aggravated assaults, from 17 to 20; and a 188 percent increase in auto thefts, from 43 to 124. Burglaries declined from 43 to 25, and larcenies from 227 to 195.

Paul Pernerewski (Courtesy of the candidate)

Board of Aldermen President Paul Pernerewski Jr. is expected to win the Democratic endorsement for mayor on Tuesday, when the Democratic Town Committee chooses its slate of candidates. But Keisha Gilliams, a registered Democrat who runs a nutrition program for the elderly, told CT Examiner that she plans on petitioning to appear on the ballot for the Sept. 12 primary. Gilliams would need 1,084 signatures – or 5 percent of the registered Democrats in the city – to secure a line on the ballot.

Republican Dawn Maiorano, the owner-operator of a family-owned funeral home, is running as the Republican candidate.

All three candidates said crime is an issue that needs to be addressed head on, but they offered differing solutions to the growing quality of life issue in Waterbury

The 61-year-old Pernerewski, who is retired as general counsel of the Connecticut Airport Authority, told CT Examiner that many crimes in the city are perpetrated by repeat offenders and that the state legislature needs to enact stricter law to “hold people longer.”

“We do know that statistics show that 20 percent of the criminals are committing 80 percent of the crimes, “ said Pernerewski, who lives in the city’s Bunker Hill section. “And, the folks who are committing those crimes are out on pretrial release, parole and probation. It seems that what’s going on, especially in Waterbury, is that you are seeing people settling scores among themselves, whether it involves money, drugs, girls; those sorts of things. That is what is driving it.”

Pernerewski suggested a number solutions, including increasing the number of police officers on the Waterbury force to 300, as well as strengthening existing laws so that when suspects are arrested, they aren’t back out on the streets right away. “They need to be locked up or held longer rather than being released right back out,” he said.

Keisha Gilliams (Courtesy of the candidate)

Gilliams, who ran for mayor in 2019 and lives on the city’s East End, said she’s a strong proponent that “the crime fit the punishment” and argued for fairness by judges in sentencing.

“You know that you can get 5 to 10 years for selling weed and that’s wrong. That’s too long,” said Gilliams.

She also said there needs to be more community policing, the hiring of more minority officers and more initiatives for young people.

Gilliams said that, if elected, she’d enact a program to encourage mentoring of the youth.

“I call it ‘Each One, Teach One.’ It can be used within our school system to pair up teachers and administrators with students and businesses can also take part,” Gilliams said.

Gilliams said that young people, especially in poorer Waterbury neighborhoods, need more “options” to inspire them to do better.

“You want to give them as many options as possible,” Gilliams, 49, told CT Examiner this week. “Mentoring is definitely a key platform of mine.” Gilliams said she also supports a firearms buyback program in order to get unregistered guns off the streets.

Waterbury Police said that, as of this week, 117 unregistered guns were seized in the city. The police said there were also 19,502 registered guns in Waterbury from the period of 2018 to August 2022, the most recent statistics available.

Maiorano, who is hoping to become the first Republican mayor in 22 years, said the recruitment of officers is essential and that she’d work closely with the police union to listen and help address their concerns.

Maiorano said the city needs an outsider and business person to address issues like crime and punishment.

“I’m a Waterbury girl as I grew up on Willow Street,” Maiorano said. “I think the current state of affairs, you know, business as usual, is not working. Crime is up, the ATVs are up, and we are down about 50 officers. I’m not a politician; I am a businesswoman and so I get it on different levels. I know about the crime issue and I will do a deep dive [if elected] on the budget. I’m going to do whatever it takes to help the police recruit [officers] and retain them and get the tools they need; whatever it takes.”

Dawn Maiorano (Courtesy of the candidate)

Maiorano also had strong opinions on the state’s Police Accountability Act.

The 55-year-old Maiorano, who lives in the city’s Bunker Hill section, said the “Police Accountability Act is tying their [police] hands. We need to reform that. I think, going into this election cycle, that we [mayors and mayoral candidates] should band together [to oppose the act].”

Asked what, specifically, about the act she had concerns about, Maiorano said: “The fact that people can film you and that if you are arrested in some sort of way, they can personally be sued. They are doing their jobs; the jobs we need them to do. I have a huge issue with the Police Accountability Act.”

All three candidates said they support organizations like the Police Athletic League, which has seen 4,000 young Waterbury residents be a part of the program. 

Even though the candidates offered different solutions to some of the crime problems, they all supported competitive salaries and benefits for Waterbury officers to keep them on the force.

According to the Waterbury Police, its officers – who recently signed a new three-year contract – are now among the better paid departments in the state.

The low-end starting salary for a police officer today is $78,654, according to the department’s website, with the top-grade salary at $88,574 annually, not including overtime pay. The contract brings the top grade salary to officers on July 1, 2024 to $91,231 annually and to $95,793 annually on July 1, 2025.

Fernando Spagnolo, who has been on the Waterbury force for 30 years including the last five as its chief, told CT Examiner this week he has several concerns that include the need for more officers, dealing with repeat crime offenders and bail bond reform.

Spagnolo said the city – which had 355 officers on the force when he started 30 years ago – today has only 257 officers. He said that manpower had dwindled after an efficiency study pegged 300 officers as the right number to budget for.  

“We probably need about 315 to 320 officers,” the chief said, noting issues like attrition, disciplinary actions, injuries and long term sick leave keep some officers off the force.

“I intend to have that conversation with the next mayor, whoever that person is,” Spagnolo said.

Echoing the concerns of several of the mayoral candidates, Spagnolo said his officers are seeing the same suspects committing the same crimes over and over.

“This is not necessarily a phenomenon, but we are seeing that same pattern of an inordinate amount of people who are arrested for fatal and non-fatal shootings that are either on pretrial release or probation or parole at the time the shootings are committed. That is coupled with the fact that many of these offenders have a previous violent felony or gun offense conviction or drug conviction,” the chief said. “For instance, in 2021 we made 31 arrests for fatal and non-fatal shootings in the city and, combined between pretrial release, probation and parole, 52 percent of those individuals were in that status. In 2022, we made one less arrest – 30 – and 70 percent of those were of that status, either pretrial release, probation or parole.”

Spagnolo said he’s also a strong supporter of meeting with city stakeholders in various neighborhoods so the concerns of the residents are heard.

“I have never declined a meeting,” the chief said. “I’m very open and I want to hear what people have to say. We understand there are differences, cultural differences and racial differences. We want to understand what they are and want to get ahead of them before they fester and become something that’s out of control or more dangerous. I think we do a pretty good job at that.”

Robert Storace

Robert Storace is a veteran reporter with stints at New Britain Herald, the New Haven Register, the Connecticut Post, Hartford Business Journal and the Connecticut Law Tribune. Storace covers the State Capitol for CT Examiner. T: 203 437 5950