After the families of two women who died in Bridgeport on the same day in December demanded action on claims they were not properly notified of the deaths of their loved ones by city police, the Judiciary Committee has taken up the cause through legislation.
HB 5349 would require police to notify the family within 24 hours of the discovery of a death or document the reasons why the family or next of kin wasn’t notified within that time frame. The proposed law would require the Inspector General to investigate if timely notification isn’t made and give the IG authority to recommend sanctions including suspension or revocation of involved officers’ police certification.
“The family of Lauren Smith-Fields found out from the landlord and the family of Brenda Lee Rawls found out from the last guy she was with,” said attorney Darnell Crosland, who is representing both families. “That’s incredible. The police department has a policy that they must notify in person, and if not, they must notify by phone. But the families found out two days later by other people.”
The bill inspired by Smith-Fields, 23, and Rawls, 53, who both died on Dec. 12, will be the subject of a public hearing Wednesday.
Autopsies determined that Smith-Fields died of an accidental fentanyl overdose, while Rawls died from cardiac arrest, Crosland said. The families plan to sue the city based on the lack of an investigation into either death, Crosland said.
Smith-Fields hadn’t been heard from in a few days, so her family went to her apartment and found a note on the door telling people to contact her landlord, Crosland said. He said the landlord told her family that she had died.
Rawls also hadn’t been in contact with her family for a few days, so they went to see the man she was last with, Crosland said. He told them she had died two days before and handed them her clothing which he had in his possession, Crosland said. “She was already at the morgue,” Crosland said.
There was a small incident report written on Smith-Fields’ death and no police report written on Rawls’ death, he said. When Crosland went to the police station with the families to talk with acting Chief Rebeca Garcia, he said she refused to speak with them.
The deaths and the lack of notification became public when the families marched on the city on Jan. 23, what would have been Smith-Fields’ 24th birthday, he said.
When Rep. Antonio Felipe, D-Bridgeport, heard about the deaths and the families’ claims that they weren’t properly notified, he asked the Judiciary Committee to raise a bill that would prevent future heartache.
“It’s very important for us to explicitly define this issue,” Felipe said. “It’s something that should be done. I think it should be a human right. I wanted it codified.”
During the short legislative session, only committees can raise bills. Judiciary Committee Co-Chair Steve Stafstrom, D-Bridgeport, agreed to take up the legislation after hearing from Felipe and local city council members, he said.
“I wish a bill like this wasn’t necessary,” Stafstrom said. “I wish these situations were handled differently.”
Stafstrom said legislative leadership seems inclined to support the bill. He’s looking at the public hearing as a way of vetting the proposal, which may need to be tweaked, he said.
An investigation by city officials resulted in two officers placed on paid administrative leave as of Jan. 30. The sergeant who was their supervisor retired before his actions could be investigated, city officials confirmed.
Bridgeport Mayor Joseph Ganim issued a statement the same day expressing that he was “extremely disappointed” with the leadership of the police department, and its actions were “unacceptable.”
“The Bridgeport Police Department has high standards for officer sensitivity especially in matters involving the death of a family member,” Ganim said in the statement. “It is an unacceptable failure if policies were not followed. To the families, friends and all who care about the human decency that should be shown in these situations, in this case by members of the Bridgeport Police Department, I am very sorry.”
A spokeswoman for the city said that Ganim’s office is working on “thoughtful and comprehensive” testimony to submit for the public hearing.