State lawmakers heard from two Bridgeport families who recounted Wednesday the painful experiences of learning about the deaths of their loved ones without ever receiving notification from local police.
The families of Lauren Smith-Fields and Brenda Lee Rawls testified before the legislature’s Judiciary Committee on a bill designed to impose penalties on police officers if they fail to notify the next of kin within 24 hours of their discovery of someone’s death. Both women died on Dec. 12 and neither family was told by Bridgeport police.
Families members described for the committee the difficult circumstances under which they learned the news. Smith-Fields’ mother recalled searching for her daughter and arriving at her apartment a day after her death.
“The note on the door said, ‘If you’re looking for Lauren, call this number.’ And it was the landlord’s number,” Shantell Fields said. “He was the one that told my son and I that my daughter was deceased. It was not the Bridgeport Police Department.”
After two days of unanswered calls and text messages, Brenda Lee Rawls’ sisters learned of her death from the man at whose house she died. Apparently, the coroner had already come and collected her body. Her sister, Deirdre Owen, reacted with disbelief.
“I said to my sister, ‘If Brenda died, we would have been notified and if she’s dead, where is she?’” Owen said. “No one knew. Friends and family members called hospitals, funeral homes, and the police department. “They don’t have a record of her death. I said, ‘Maybe she not dead.’”
Through a frantic search, the family eventually tracked Rawls to the Chief Medical Examiner’s Office in Farmington. That was around the time her autopsy was completed, Owen said. Autopsies determined that Smith-Fields died of an accidental fentanyl overdose, while Rawls died from cardiac arrest, according to Darnell Crosland, a lawyer representing both families.
Lawmakers on the committee seemed generally supportive of the bill, which includes some potentially serious consequences for police who fail to comply. The proposal gives officers 24 hours to make a notification or document why they did not. After an investigation, the bill would give the state Inspector General authority to recommend that the Police Officer Standards and Training Council revoke the officer’s certification if malfeasance is found.
Legislators on the panel seemed confident of the bill’s eventual passage, although changes may be considered. More than one witness, including a labor union representing municipal police, suggested shifting the responsibility of ensuring notification from the officer to a supervisor or administrator.
During the hearing, Rep. Steve Stafstrom, a Bridgeport Democrat who co-chairs the committee, regretted that the bill was even necessary, saying its underlying principle should be common sense.
“It is just incredible to me that we’re not talking just the one incidence of this, we’re talking two within days of each other and we have two families who have suffered the same fate and the same trauma at the hands of a single police department,” Stafstrom said.
The families’ difficulties with the police department were not limited to the lack of notification. Smith-Fields’ father, Everette Smith, described being “met with disdain” and condescension from the detective handling the investigation.
“My daughter’s death has just been discarded — swept under the rug. It’s disgusting,” Smith said. “And I know that this bill’s not going to take care of everything, but it’s a start.”
Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim testified in support of the legislation but said there were some things the bill could not fix, including the “lack of sensitivity and respect and human decency” shown by his city’s police department to the two families.
“I’ve expressed my disappointment with leadership in the Bridgeport Police Department,” Ganim said. Following a city investigation, the department placed two officers on leave and a supervising sergeant has since retired. “I’ve been criticized for taking action that some say was above and beyond my authority,” Ganim said Wednesday.
Stafstrom told the mayor he wanted to see more action, including the replacement of acting Bridgeport Police Chief Rebeca Garcia.
“I have to say, it’s time for new leadership of that department. I know you’re conducting a national police search. Hurry up,” Stafstrom said. “We need new leadership of the Bridgeport Police Department and fast.”