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Police diversity under scrutiny after investigations into deaths of two Black women

Ryan Caron King
Black police officers represent 15% of the force in Bridgeport. The president of a local chapter of the NAACP says that's not enough to reflect diversity in the community, one that's grappling with controversial investigations into the deaths of two Black women.

Investigations into the deaths of two Black women who died in December are raising questions about the Bridgeport Police Department’s ability to serve a diverse community.

Allegations of misconduct from the families of Lauren Smith-Fields and Brenda Lee Rawls prompted Mayor Joe Ganim to discipline the officers who investigated their deaths.

The Rev. Stanley Lord, president of the Greater Bridgeport chapter of the NAACP, feels that the police department would’ve done better by the families if racial diversity on the force represented the diversity of the community.

“Police leadership and a change in the policies and practices for recruitment – the makeup of the force – are grave areas that must be laser-focused to get this work done,” Lord said Wednesday. “The Bridgeport Police Department must be a real department for all of its citizens and not just for a select few.”

According to statistics the city keeps, 54% of the Bridgeport Police Department’s 327 police officers are white, while 15% are Black. Lord said in a news conference held on Zoom that the number of Black officers in the department is too low. He also said he’d like to see more Black officers fill leadership roles within the police department.

“Recent actions by uniform officer detectives have cast a shadow on the performance of the department publicly and has made clear the great need for diversity in its staffing, its leadership and decision-making practices,” Lord said.

Connecticut Public Radio reached out to the Bridgeport Police Department regarding Lord’s concerns over the department’s makeup.

“The Bridgeport Police Department serves its residents and all members of our community regardless of race, ethnicity, gender or religion,” Bridgeport spokesperson Scott Appleby wrote in an email. “Members of the Bridgeport Police Department are hired and promoted based upon a competitive Civil Service exam process.”

The issue about whether police leadership reflects the diversity of city residents arose after the families of Smith-Fields and Rawls, who both were found dead on Dec. 12, spoke out about concerns that police were racially insensitive in the way they handled the investigations.

Bridgeport did announce the hiring of an African American woman to a civilian position at the police department – a victim services coordinator named Shanda Scott. The department says Scott was hired on Jan. 18 to fill a position that had been vacant for nearly a year. Scott reportedly will run point with victims of violent crime – or their families – if they need direction, information or access to resources. Department officials say the hiring is not related to the recent incidents in December.

Smith-Fields, 23, was pronounced dead after police responded to a call for service at her apartment the morning of Dec. 12. The office of Connecticut’s chief medical examiner said she died of intoxication due to the combined effects of fentanyl, promethazine, hydroxyzine and alcohol. Bridgeport police opened a criminal investigation into her death, but not until more than a month had passed.

Brenda Lee Rawls, 53, was found dead that same day, according to a statement from the department. Bridgeport police say her death “remains an active investigation.” Connecticut Public Radio attempted to get a case or incident report related to Rawls from police but was denied. Police said that there were no signs of physical trauma or foul play after Rawls’ body was discovered and that the office of the chief medical examiner would determine the cause of death.

Their families say they are upset over having found out about the deaths of their loved ones at least two days afterward.

As a result, the city is looking into whether detectives Kevin Cronin and Angel Llanos violated the department’s standards of conduct and a general order regarding their death notifications.

“I am extremely disappointed with the leadership of the Bridgeport Police Department and have found the actions taken up to this point with regards to these two investigations unacceptable,” Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim said on Jan. 31.

The union representing the officers says the city violated a contract article governing discipline when Ganim suspended the officers and placed them on administrative leave.

“Ordering the Department to suspend two detectives and place them on administrative leave without an investigation into the facts constitutes an interference with due process,” Troy Raccuia, director of collective bargaining for AFSCME Council 4, wrote in a letter to Ganim.

The union on Thursday also accused Ganim of inflaming anti-police sentiment with his actions.

The union hopes the grievances will restore the detectives’ jobs.

Frankie Graziano is the host of The Wheelhouse, focusing on how local and national politics impact the people of Connecticut.

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