Using a wheelchair, a cane and a walker to reach the stage, injured Hartford Police Department Officer Brian Kearney stood before family, friends and fellow officers on Saturday morning and thanked his partner, fallen Det. Robert “Bobby” Garten, for always protecting him.
Kearney, through tears, announced to the hundreds who gathered to celebrate Bobby’s life and service that he would be awarding his own Medal of Valor — the highest honor bestowed by the Hartford Police Department — to his partner. He took the medal from around his own neck and placed it on Bobby’s coffin, which sat draped in an American flag at the front of the XL Center.
Kearney and Garten’s parents, Bob and Deb Garten, each sorrowfully bent down to kiss Bobby’s decorated coffin at the end of an hourslong, emotional Celebration of Life in Hartford Saturday morning. The 36-year-old detective died in the line of duty on Sept. 6 when a speeding vehicle crashed into a police cruiser he was riding in, badly wounding Kearney and killing Garten, who was posthumously promoted to detective.
Hartford Chief Jason Thody presented Garten’s father, Bob Garten, a retired member of the Hartford Police Department, with his son’s detective badge on Saturday, pressing it firmly into his hand and saluting the mourning father. The elder Garten proudly gripped the badge, doubling over in grief.
While the heartbreak of Bobby’s loss was palpable in the XL Center during the memorial, with hundreds of law enforcement officers saluting his casket as the sound of bagpipes and drums filled the arena, so was the joy he spread to all those he knew in and out of uniform.
He was described as an unwaveringly loyal friend and doting uncle who always prioritized time with his family. He was his father’s right-hand man on home improvement projects and he called his mother every day to say hello, tell her he loved her and promise to be safe at work.
Friends and family said Garten was an avid hockey player who liked to golf. He was friendly and humble. He had a “superhuman snacking ability” and a love of Bud Light that his brother joked could have single-handedly kept the beer brewer in business.
He hated birthday cake but loved chocolate chip cookies. He loved the Hartford Whalers, a team he used to watch in the very same arena where his life was celebrated Saturday, and continued to cheer on the blue and green as a Hartford Yard Goats fan.
“He loved this city,” said Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin. “He rooted for Hartford always.”
Bronin said that Garten was an exceptional police officer who always stepped up and took on new responsibilities with compassion and an open heart.
“He died doing work that he loved with a partner, Officer Kearney, who he loved. In a department that he loved, in a city that he loved, following in the footsteps of a father who he loved. And he was loved in return by all who knew him,” said Bronin.
An eight-year veteran of the department, Garten grew up with the Hartford Police Department, idolizing his father and other members of the force from an early age.
At family dinners after his dad’s shifts, his brother William Garten said a young Bobby would ask their dad: “Did you turn on your lights? Did you turn on your sirens? Did you arrest anyone?”
“Bobby would hang on every word with his bright blue eyes,” his brother said.
William Garten said that his brother and father always had a special bond with police work and were aware of the sacrifices they might make in their service.
“They both understood that they were doing a dangerous job and didn’t know if they were going to make it home,” Garten said.
Bobby, he said was born his little brother but died his hero.
William Garten, whose young son Liam sang Amazing Grace during the celebration, told anecdotes of his brother’s childhood: like how he reached out to the Navy online at age 8 asking to enlist. They told him he was a bit too young, Garten joked, but suggested his brother join the sea cadets, and so he did.
He remembered how their mom would have to play referee over which of the brothers got more of their grandmother’s cinnamon rolls and always made sure they had the same number of Christmas presents under the tree, even into their adulthood.
He recalled summers spent on the water at the grandparent’s vacation home, jet skiing and fishing and staying up late with their cousins playing Super Mario Brothers with their cousins.
One of his cousins, Kelly Stone, asked everyone in attendance to honor Bobby by living like he did.
He was known for having a happy, consistent smile, she said, telling the crowd to honor him by offering kind smiles to loved ones and strangers alike.
Bobby’s high school friends also spoke during his celebration, describing him as being unwaveringly loyal to his family and department, kind and gracious to strangers, and a friend who was always fun to be around.
One friend said that Bobby always had a detective’s mind, which he showed in his ability to predict the plot of police movies before he even wore a badge.
Having gone through so many of life’s milestones together, his friends said it was impossible to describe the emptiness they now felt without him, but they were trying to find comfort in knowing he died doing what he always wanted to do.
Kearney said that the pair joined the Hartford police department’s elite street crimes unit together in 2021, assigned to the North End and tasked with finding individuals involved in gun violence and narcotics crimes.
It was work they wanted to do “since we put the shield to our chest,” he said. But they knew it could be dangerous.
“We knew the risks, we knew it was dangerous, and we knew working a unit like this could cost us our lives. But we didn’t care,” he said. “We knew we had each other for backup and we knew we had six other officers, teammates, who would stop at nothing to keep us safe on the streets.”
“5 days, 70 hours a week, Bob and I got in our cruiser and went out on the streets and we simply tried the hardest we could to catch bad guys, and we were good at it,” Kearney said.
But being partners “wasn’t all chases and bad guys,” Kearney said through sorrowful sobs. Their work together was a bonded brotherhood that meant protecting each other; it meant diet cokes and life advice and lottery tickets on long shifts; it meant Bobby saying goodnight to Kearney’s children.
Kearney described the street crimes unit as a team of friends who also did police work, and Chief Thody commended how he had seen them support each other since Bobby’s death.
Moments after two fellow officers lifted Kearney from his wheelchair, helping him get to his feet, Thody spoke of how he watched the unit and entire department “come together to honor Bobby and lift Brian up” in a way that was “truly inspirational.”
“Your camaraderie and dedication to each other during this tragedy are a testament to your love for Bobby,” he said, commenting on the closeness of the officers in the street crimes unit.
“You’re a tight-knit group and this will weigh heavy on all of you but you will rise above and continue to meet the challenges just like your teammate did,” the chief said.
Thody said that the week since Bobby’s death was one of the most difficult the department had faced in decades, but that they faced it with strength.
“That strength doesn’t come from the loss of Bobby, it comes from the inspiration that he provided when he was with us,” Thody said.
“He was and always will be our hero.”
Flags were at half mast throughout Hartford as police from all over Connecticut, and neighboring states, filed into the XL Center. Photos of Garten played across the jumbotron in the arena as officers filed in and saluted. Photos of him at weddings, at baseball games, walking in parades, on duty, celebrating holidays and at the beach with his family.
Bobby was always smiling, even in times of adversity, said Thody.
As his chief, Thody said he “came to understand that he was smiling because he loved his job. He believed in his team’s mission to keep our community safe. He was smiling because if things got more demanding he worked harder, that was Bobby’s way.”
“Bobby had a way about him was infectious” that left the department with a new standard, Thody said. “His love for his family, his fellow officers, his dedication to service, his courage and his smile are all part of ‘Bobby’s Way.’”
“Bobby’s Way” will now be the name of the Hartford Police Department’s Marine Unit boat, which will soon be adorned with a plaque in his memory.
“He will be forever at the helm steering the ship,” said Thody.
Retired Hartford Det. Peter Getz, a family friend of the Gartens, implored attendees of Saturday’s celebration to go out and honor Bobby by living like he did: “Enjoy life, buy lottery tickets, have a Bud Light, heroes last forever,” he said in closing, placing a bottle of Bud Light on the podium.
Thody said that in addition to the dedication of the boat, Garten’s locker will be retired with a glass door so his uniform can be seen hanging, waiting for service. And his unit number was heard on Saturday for the last time.
“Unit 133 is signing off,” said Kearney at the service.
Bobby’s celebration of life was followed by a private burial in Wethersfield.