NEW BRITAIN — With less than a week before Election Day, New Britain’s mayoral candidates highlighted their starkly different approaches to crime and public safety, particularly regarding the city’s new police chief and strategies for dealing with nuisance crimes.
Democrat Chris Anderson expressed reservations about the selection of Police Chief Matthew Marino over then-Deputy Police Chief Benjamin Murphy and other applicants in April. Marino and Murphy were among the final three candidates considered for the position.
Republican Mayor Erin Stewart endorsed Marino, who received an 11-3 approval from the Common Council. With 16 years of experience on the local force, Marino was promoted from the rank of captain to chief, officially starting on May 1.
“I believe she [Stewart] felt that she would have more control over Marino,” said Anderson, a real estate accountant. “I think there was a sense in the community that he [Murphy] had a longer tenure on the force. He had more experience, and many felt Marino was sort of a political pick [by the mayor]. He served on the Board of Education as a Republican prior.”
Marino, 37, is the youngest chief in the history of the department. Stewart, who went to school with Marino at Slade Middle School and New Britain High School, told CT Examiner she supported him because she believed he was the most qualified for the job.
“Chief Marino brings a perspective of someone who was not only born and raised here, but has worked for this police department through its good days and its bad days. I value how he genuinely cares for the people of our community,” Stewart said. “You can take all the classes that you want, and yes, they are important, but it’s the practicality of how you treat people and how you manage people.”
Though Marino has only been on the job six months, Stewart said he has led the department well, “and I firmly believe that he’s going to be in this job for 20 years, maybe.”
But Anderson questioned Marino’s handling of the case of Katherine Colon, who was hit and killed by a police cruiser Sept. 21 while attempting to cross West Main Street. City officer Connor Reinsch was responding to a burglary call at the time.
“That [Colon incident] was his first big test,” Anderson said. “And he punted to the state in terms of the investigation. I will say that he spoke at the council meeting where Katherine Colon’s family came and where the family called for accountability. I will say that he attempted to offer his sincere condolences, but I do think that, for many in the community, it was a little late.”
Reinsch has been placed on restricted duty where he does administrative work and doesn’t respond to calls.
Marino told CT Examiner this week that Colon’s death was “a very unfortunate situation. As a police department, we did everything by the book and let the State Police take over right from the beginning.”
Asked if he would have handled the matter differently, Marino said, “It’s tough to say. It’s easy in hindsight to look back on everything but, at the end of the day, it’s one of those unfortunate circumstances where our hands were really tied and there’s not much we can say or do at this point.”
If elected, Anderson said he’d support creating a police civilian review board.
“I think there is a big gap in trust between many in the community, in particular communities of color, when it comes to policing,” he said. “We saw that in the Katherine Colon incident because many in the community were feeling that there was sort of an intentional disregard [of Colon] because it was a person of color.”
Regarding Anderson’s critique of being named police chief, Marino said he has a lot of pride in the community.
“I want to make it a point, especially to the kids that grew up here, to say I believe that they should all have the same opportunities that I had growing up.”
Stewart said she’s proud of the chief and of what she says are the accomplishments related to public safety that have occurred under her tenure. Stewart, 36, has been mayor for 10 years and is seeking her sixth two-year term.
Stewart said about 30 police officers were hired during her tenure; there are currently 161 officers on the force. The department is allotted for 165 officers.
“Yes, we have funded the department by hiring more officers, but it’s really about creating a better system and structure to our department that embraces 21st-century policing ideology and pushing our police department to become a more modern police department,” Stewart said.
That includes, she said, the implementation in 2021 of a department Navigator Unit, which includes officers who work with individuals struggling with mental health issues.
Officers work with clinicians from organizations like the Community Mental Health Affiliates and those with mental health concerns on a one-to-one basis, providing outreach and support as opposed to arresting them, Marino explained.
The mayoral candidates also differed on how to handle people who commit nuisance crimes, such as car break-ins. According to New Britain Police Department statistics, the number of car break-ins skyrocketed from 144 incidents between Jan 1. To Oct. 15, 2022, to 255 for the same period this year.
“A lot of it has to do with the fact that nuisance crimes are not prosecuted anymore,” Stewart said. “That is just a fact in the state of Connecticut. I think a conversation needs to be had at the state level that, when you are not prosecuting people, repeat offenders for larcenies and burglaries, they are just going to go back out there and keep doing that. It’s OK giving youth who are troubled a second chance. I’m all for that kind of restorative justice approach. But at some point, lessons need to be learned.”
Anderson, a relative newcomer to the city, told CT Examiner that poverty leads to crime and the underlying issue of poverty needs to be addressed.
Anderson added that education and jobs would go a long way toward “the path out of poverty and away from crime.”
“I don’t think people are born wanting to be criminals,” he said. “They wind up on that path because I think a lot of times they felt that was the best way to make ends meet. If we just increase funding for police, if we just hire more officers, we might have more arrests but it does not address those underlying problems.”
If elected, Anderson said he’d work with the state to create “a pipeline to address the issue of poverty.”
Stewart said she’s also proud of the city’s community service officers, who work closely with local police.
“We give them basic police department training and use them at community events and for things like road closures,” she said. “There is a lot that our police department does that goes above and beyond what you would expect from a police department.”