Relatives call for law on timely notice by police of deaths
HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — Relatives of two Bridgeport women who died on the same day in December cried Wednesday as they urged state legislators to pass a law requiring police to timely notify families of their loved ones’ deaths.
The families of Lauren Smith-Fields and Brenda Lee Rawls, two Black women who died Dec. 12 in unrelated incidents, said Bridgeport police never notified them of their deaths. Two police detectives who investigated the cases have been suspended pending internal affairs investigations.
“The way that my daughter’s death was handled was simply an atrocity,” Everette Smith, Smith-Fields’ father, told the Judiciary Committee during a public hearing held via Zoom. “I feel that we’ve been ... just discarded. My daughters’ death has just been discarded, swept under the rug. And it’s disgusting. And I know that this bill is not going to take care of everything but it is a start.”
According to the chief medical examiner’s office, Smith-Fields died of an accidental overdose and Rawls died of natural causes — cardiovascular disease with diabetes as a contributing cause.
The bill under consideration would require police to notify next of kin of a person who died “as soon as practicable, but not later than 24 hours following the identification of such person.” If an officer is not able to notify a relative, the officer would be required to document the reason and any attempts to make the notification.
An officer found guilty of wrongdoing in failure to notify a relative in a timely matter could face discipline including suspension and revocation of their state certification to serve as an officer, under the bill.
“Unfortunately this is a bill that really shouldn’t be necessary,” said Rep. Steven Stafstrom, a Bridgeport Democrat and leading sponsor of the bill. “This is something the Bridgeport Police Department and every other police department should be doing.”
Deirdre Owen, Rawls’ sister, said her family went looking for her on Dec. 14 because she wasn’t answering her phone or texts. They found out about her death from a man who had been with her, who said she died two days earlier in his home.
Owen said relatives made frantic calls to police and hospitals trying to find her body, but they had no record of her death. They finally discovered she had been taken to the medical examiner’s office and an autopsy had been performed, Owen said. She and Smith-Fields’ family say police still have not met with them.
“Their actions were inactions ... proving them to be incompetent, negligent, insensitive and disrespectful and has added insult to injury,” Owen told the committee, referring to police. “I believe that this passing of the bill or law will help prevent other families from going through all the grief, pain and heartache that my family has gone through and is still going through. My family needs closure.”
Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim acknowledged that city and police officials still have not met with the two families. He told the committee the city officers’ actions and lack of respect to the families was unacceptable, and he was taking steps to obtain answers and make sure such failures of notification never happen again.
Police officials have said they are still investigating Smith-Fields’ death, while they were closing the Rawls investigation due to the medical examiner’s finding that her death was from natural causes.
The committee did not vote on the bill or several other police accountability proposals on the public hearing agenda Wednesday.