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Testimony from Bridgeport families drives Judiciary Committee to fine-tune next-of-kin notification bill

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., Jan. 23, 2022. Smith-Fields was found dead in her Bridgeport apartment in December, and her family and friends marched in her memory.

The families of Lauren Smith-Fields and Brenda Lee Rawls, who were both found dead in unrelated incidents Dec. 12 in Bridgeport, testified at a House Judiciary Committee public hearing Wednesday. They expressed support for a proposed bill that would require police to notify next of kin within 24 hours of a deceased person’s identification.

HB 5349 – An Act Concerning The Timely Reporting By The Police, was drafted at the request of the Smith-Fields family, who say Bridgeport police failed to notify them of Lauren Smith-Fields’ death.

“It should be the responsibility of the authorities to make responsible, reasonable attempts to inform immediately that their loved one has been deceased,” said Shantell Fields, mother of Lauren Smith-Fields. “For example, my brother-in-law lost his wallet in Westport. Within 30 minutes, the Westport police contacted his mother. It took for me to go over to my daughter’s house to find out that my daughter was deceased. When it comes to Black or brown people, you need to treat us like we are human.”

Breaking down through parts of his testimony, Everette Smith, father of Lauren Smith-Fields, said the way his daughter’s death was handled “was simply an atrocity.” Smith recalled receiving a phone call from Shantell Fields, informing him of their daughter’s death.

“I then found out that we weren’t told by the Bridgeport Police Department that my daughter was found deceased. We were told by the landlord who left a note on the door of my daughter’s apartment, who also told us that the investigating officer had left his card,” Smith said. “And I immediately gave him a call and after speaking to this man, I had no respect at all for any police department in totality.”

Committee members looked somber — and at times were in tears — at the rawness of the testimonies. “I wish this bill was not necessary, but unfortunately, it most certainly is,” said state Rep. Steven Stafstrom (D-Bridgeport), committee chair.

Brenda Lee Rawls’ sisters shared their anguish as they talked about the calls made by the family to hospitals, funeral homes and police in search of their sister.

“But they don’t have a record of her death,” recounted Deirdre Owen, sister of Rawls. “Through the family’s own efforts of frantically calling around Bridgeport, we found out that Brenda’s body was at the medical examiner’s office in Farmington. My family was never notified by the Bridgeport Police Department that my sister passed.”

But Rawls’ other sister, Dorothy Washington, pointed out that even though she and her family support the bill, without oversight built into it, “it’s a waste of time.”

What would happen, Washington asked, after a police officer identified a deceased person and is unable to notify the next of kin? “Who’s going to be there, to go and look at the documentation and make sure that the officer did his due diligence?”

Responding in part to Washington, Bridgeport Councilwoman Maria Pereira acknowledged that Section 1 of the bill “continuously refers to the officer who responds,” and that “sometimes we go after the low-hanging fruit.”

Pereira asked members to consider inserting language “that it’s not just the police officer who responds, but it’s adding and/or their superior officer.”

Sujata Srinivasan is Connecticut Public Radio’s senior health reporter. Prior to that, she was a senior producer for Where We Live, a newsroom editor, and from 2010-2014, a business reporter for the station.

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