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Connecticut mayor announces probe into police handling of Black woman's death

The family of Lauren Smith-Fields plans to sue the city of Bridgeport, charging that its police department's handling of the case has been "racially insensitive."

The mayor of Bridgeport, Connecticut, announced Monday that the police department's handling of the investigation into the death of a 23-year-old Black woman found unresponsive in her apartment in December by a man she had met on a Bumble date has been referred to its Office of Internal Affairs for an independent investigation.

This comes just days after an attorney for the woman's family said they plan to sue the city over what they described as the police department's "racially insensitive" handling of the case.

"First, I would like to restate the city's condolences to the family and friends of Lauren Smith-Fields, and to the many caring individuals who have reached out seeking answers for Lauren," Mayor Joseph Ganim said in a statement Monday. "I recognize that the family and the community is experiencing a lot of pain because of the loss of a young woman in addition to unanswered questions and concerns about the way the matter has been handled."

An attorney for the family filed a notice of claim Friday, charging that acting Police Chief Rebeca Garcia, Ganim and three other police officers violated the rights of Smith-Fields and her family under the 1983 Civil Rights Act and failed to provide her and her family with the due process accorded to them under the 14th Amendment.

Smith-Fields was found unresponsive Dec. 12 in her apartment in Bridgeport by the 37-year-old man, who is white, she had met on the dating app Bumble. NBC News is not naming the man because he has not been charged.

Family and friends of Lauren Smith-Fields gathered for a protest march in her memory in Bridgeport, Conn., on Jan. 23, 2022.
Family and friends of Lauren Smith-Fields gathered for a protest march in her memory in Bridgeport, Conn., on Jan. 23, 2022.Ned Gerard / Hearst Connecticut Media via AP

Smith-Fields' family has alleged that they were not notified of her death by police and instead learned about it from her landlord who directed them to a detective.

In his statement, Ganim said "sensitivity and care is of utmost importance when working with the family of a victim." 

"There is no tolerance for anything less than respect and sensitivity for family members and their loss," he said. "To that end, this matter has been referred to the Office of Internal Affairs to conduct a full and fair investigation."

He said he shares the concerns echoed by many about the length of time and the manner in which a family is informed of a loss.

"Death notifications should be done in a manner that illustrates dignity for the deceased and respect and compassion for the family," Ganim said. "Therefore, I will work with the Chief of Police to make appropriate changes here in Bridgeport now for our department's policies and practices regarding notifying family members of a death."

He added: "I support and add my voice to the family, community, and elected officials who are calling for state legislation on this issue."

The office of the chief medical examiner said Monday that Smith-Fields' death was accidental resulting from "acute intoxication due to the combined effects of fentanyl, promethazine, hydroxyzine and alcohol." Her family's attorney, Darnell Crosland, said they are awaiting the results of an independent autopsy.

Crosland said Tuesday that the medical examiner's findings don't cure the police department's "lack of process," but make it worse.

Crosland said if the police had better investigated the scene and the man Smith-Fields was with, the family would know more about her last moments.

"As a result of a botched investigation or lack thereof, this morning we are left with more questions than answers," he said.

Ganim said he had contacted the state medical examiner to "request assistance in expediting this matter so that the investigation can proceed and detectives may provide a comprehensive report to family and parents of Lauren Smith-Fields."

"I offer my support in bringing closure to the family during this terrible tragedy," he said.

The police department has not responded to specific questions from NBC News about allegations made by Smith-Fields' family and their attorney, including that they were told by the first detective assigned to the case to stop calling to inquire about the investigation, and that the man who reported her unresponsive is not a person of interest in the case.

In a statement Friday, the acting police chief said the department expressed its condolences to Smith-Fields' loved ones and that the investigation remains open.