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Next-of-kin notification bill out of committee through stiff opposition

Shantell Fields, Lauren Smith-Fields' mother, stands with family members during a protest rally in front of the Morton Government Center, in Bridgeport, Conn. Jan. 23, 2022. Smith-Fields was found dead in her Bridgeport apartment in December and her family and friends marched in her memory on Sunday, which would have been her 24th birthday.
Ned Gerard
/
Hearst Connecticut Media
Shantell Fields, mother of Lauren Smith-Fields, stands with family members during a protest in front of the Morton Government Center in Bridgeport, Conn., on Jan. 23, 2022. Smith-Fields was found dead in her Bridgeport apartment in December, and her family and friends marched in her memory.

The General Assembly’s Public Safety Committee voted 13-10 on Monday to advance a proposal to require police to notify the next of kin within 24 hours of a deceased person’s identification.

The family of Lauren Smith-Fields, who was found dead in Bridgeport last December, advocated for the drafting of HB 5349 – An Act Concerning the Timely Reporting By the Police of a Death, after they said Bridgeport police failed to notify them of her death.

In a committee hearing in March, Shantell Fields, mother of Lauren Smith-Fields, said: “It should be the responsibility of the authorities to make responsible, reasonable attempts to inform immediately that their loved one has been deceased.”

Fields recounted how, for example, when her brother-in-law lost his wallet in Westport, the Westport police contacted his mother within 30 minutes. But that wasn’t what she experienced when her daughter died.

“It took for me to go over to my daughter’s house to find out that my daughter was deceased,” Fields said. “When it comes to Black or brown people, you need to treat us like we are human.”

The bill would mandate a time frame for police to contact family members – within 24 hours of identifying the deceased person. The proposal cleared the judiciary committee 37-2, but it faced stiff opposition in its current form, including from former police officers on the Public Safety Committee.

“If I have to make sure that this notification is made, or I have to face some sort of discipline, up to basically termination or loss of my certification, I’m going to make sure that I do this myself,” said Dan Champagne, a Republican state senator who served as a police officer for 22 years.

Champagne said that meant officers would begin notifying families by phone instead of passing on the in-person task to another officer in the jurisdiction where the individual was found deceased, thereby dehumanizing the process.

Others disagreed.

Rep. Anthony Felipe, a Democrat from Bridgeport, emphasized that the proposal has built-in safeguards.

“I don’t think there’s going to be a bunch of police decertified,” Felipe said. “If you make that good faith effort, we are not going to penalize you for it.”

The proposal has yet to go before the full General Assembly. The session ends May 4.

This post has been updated with vote totals that passed the measure out of Public Safety Committee.

Sujata Srinivasan is a Senior Producer for 'Where We Live,' the flagship news-based, call-in talk show from Connecticut Public Radio, featuring deep dives at the intersection of data-driven narrative and investigative long-form journalism. She's also an editor for the Connecticut Public newsroom.