Lawmakers voted Tuesday to advance a bill penalizing police who fail to make timely notification to a deceased person’s next of kin. The legislation was written in response to the botched handling of the deaths of two Bridgeport women last year.
The Judiciary Committee approved the legislation requiring family notification within 24 hours on a bipartisan vote. The panel’s vote comes nearly three weeks after the families of Lauren Smith-Fields and Brenda Lee Rawls relayed the heartbreaking experience of learning about their loved ones deaths’ second-hand when Bridgeport police failed to contact them.
“This is a bill that I wish we did not have to have before us, but unfortunately we do,” said Rep. Steve Stafstrom, a Bridgeport Democrat who co-chairs the committee. Stafstrom cited Smith-Fields, Rawls, and other situations “when a loved one had turned up dead and was discovered by police.”
“I hope we can provide some solace and some groundwork and framework coming out of a couple of tragic events throughout our state by passage of this legislation,” Stafstrom said.
Lawmakers from both parties generally supported the bill. Rep. Greg Howard, a police officer and Republican from Stonington, said he was always hesitant to pass legislation adding more stress to the jobs of investigating officers. However, in this case, he said the bill codified what should already have been the case.
“I think, in my 20 years, that the responsibility to notify next of kin in a timely manner has always been there. Or should have always been there,” Howard said. “I support the underlying intent of this. I think this bill works to outline how I feel police work should be being done today.”
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.
Despite support from most Republicans, the bill was not approved unanimously. Sen. Dan Champaign, a Vernon Republican and retired police officer, voted against it along with Rep. Kimberly Fiorello, R-Greenwich. Fiorello said the legislature was too quick to micro-manage police officers.
“I have great faith that our police officers do wonderful work. In any profession there are those who mar the reputation of the group, but overall I think we can all agree that our police force in Connecticut deserve to have some faith from all of us in the lawmaking sector,” Fiorello said.
Sen. Gary Winfield, a New Haven Democrat who co-chairs the committee, said he did have faith that the majority of police officers in Connecticut were doing their jobs.
“Having said that, I think that at the moment when a loved one is lost, that is a very important moment. It’s a very emotional moment and a life is changed forever, as we know,” Winfield said. “We saw the family members around the situation in Bridgeport come before this committee. We know the impact it still has on them and will have for the rest of their lives.”
Winfield said the problem was not limited to the two high-profile cases in Bridgeport last year. He suggested that instances where police fail to notify families seemed to disproportionately impact certain communities.
“The instances where I have seen this have been of particular communities and I will leave that there,” Winfield said. “I don’t do this on every bill, but I will ask the members of this committee to consider voting in the affirmative.”