A bill requiring police to notify a deceased person’s family within a day of identifying a body advanced Monday through the legislature’s public safety committee despite concerns by some lawmakers it would diminish officers’ ability to make such notifications in-person.
The bill was originally drafted and passed by the Judiciary Committee in response to two high-profile cases from Bridgeport, where police failed to tell the families of Lauren Smith-Fields and Brenda Lee Rawls that their loved ones had died.
The legislation gives the state Inspector General authority to recommend repealing the certification of officers who do not make notification within 24 hours. Although it passed the judiciary panel on a bipartisan vote in March, current and former police officers on the public safety committee had reservations Monday.
Sen. Dan Champagne, a Vernon Republican and former police officer, said the bill’s potential consequences may cause officers to prioritize making timely notifications over making them in person. Champagne recalled informing a parent of the death of their child during his career as an officer.
“I had to do it by telephone. It was the worst thing I ever did and I hated making that notification that her son had died over the telephone but the reason I did it was because they were going to be gone for a week,” Champagne said. “This should happen in person because if that person has a medical issue when you’re notifying them, somebody should be present.”
Rep. Michael DiGiovancarlo, a Democrat from Waterbury who is an officer on that city’s police force, said he was unhappy with the potentially severe consequences included in the legislation.
“There was two incidents that were gross — grotesque and what I’ve learned in my 17 years now is we’re judged … by the actions of a few that should’ve done better,” he said.
The committee eventually approved the bill 13 to 10 with DiGiovancarlo voting in favor of the legislation in hopes it would be amended before final passage.
“I’ve seen some bad policing bills over the last few years that really have handcuffed law enforcement,” he said. “If I had to pick one that probably wouldn’t do too much damage, it’d probably be this one but I hope I see a change to a lesser level.”
The families of Smith-Fields and Rawls delivered emotional testimony before the Judiciary Committee last month. Smith-Fields’ mother recalled searching for her daughter and eventually learning of her death through a landlord who had left an ominous note taped to her daughter’s apartment door.
During Monday’s public safety meeting, Rep. Antonio Felipe, D-Bridgeport, said the bill was a safeguard to ensure other families do not suffer the experiences of the Rawls and Smith-Fields. It would not likely result in widespread disciplinary action against police officers, Felipe said.
“The right to grieve, the right to know that your family member is gone is a human right,” Felipe said. “I don’t think this is going to have this overarching effect on our police departments. I don’t think there’s going to be a bunch of police decertified for these situations.”
Rep. Greg Howard, a police officer and Republican from Stonington, said the bill singled out police officers.
“Police officers aren’t the only ones who make notifications. Doctors do. Hospitals, hospice nurses, nursing homes,” Howard said. “Are the people who die in those environments not involving the police, are their families somehow — they don’t need to be notified in a timely manner? I think they do, but again we’re targeting one profession.”
The bill will now go to the House of Representatives for consideration.