The families of two Black women who died on the same day last December in Connecticut testified at a public hearing Wednesday in support of a bill that would require police to notify families of the death of a loved one within 24 hours of identification.
The families of the two women — Lauren Smith-Fields, 23, and Brenda Lee Rawls, 53, both of whom died Dec. 12 — say they were never contacted by the police in Bridgeport.
“When it comes to Black and brown people, you need to treat us like we’re human,” Shantell Fields, Smith-Fields' mother, told the online hearing. “I just need for everyone to be treated as a human being, and be notified of their family’s loss and to be treated with respect and kindness, which the Bridgeport department did not allow us.”
“The way that my daughter’s death was handled was simply an atrocity," Everett Smith, Smith-Fields' father said, calling the bill “common sense.”
“We didn’t even get a phone call," he added. "We had to search and dig and find from a fourth party.” That fourth party was Smith-Fields’ landlord, who left a note on her apartment door for the family to call him.
Smith-Fields died after a date with a man whom she had met on a dating app. Her mother, who lives nearby, went searching for her daughter after she did not answer several texts and calls.
The chief medical examiner ruled Smith-Fields' death accidental, 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.
“We still have questions that need to be answered," her father said. "We still have evidence that needs to be investigated. We still need the Bridgeport Police Department to step forth and do their job. My daughter’s death has been discarded, swept under the rug. And it’s disgusting. I know this bill is not going to take care of everything, but it’s a start.”
Deirdre Owen, Rawls’ sister, said that “instead of being able to mourn my sister’s death,” the family has been forced to spend time investigating what happened to her. Rawls died in the home of a man she knew. The medical examiner attributed the death to natural causes. Her family has said they were not notified of her death but instead learned about it days later, upon calling the medical examiner after calls to police and hospitals failed to provide Rawls' whereabouts.
State Rep. Steven Stafstrom, a Democrat from Bridgeport and co-chairman of the judiciary committee, wrote the bill.
“It is just incredible to me that we’re not just talking one instance of this, we’re talking two, within days of each other, that we have two families that have suffered the same fate and the same trauma at the hands of a single police department,” Stafstrom said at the hearing.
The Bridgeport police department has come under fire for its handling of the cases. Two detectives involved in the Smith-Fields case have been suspended and the department is undergoing an internal investigation.
Police officers who violate the proposed law could be reported to the state’s Office of the Inspector General for investigation and face suspension. The committee did not vote on the bill, but lawmakers from both parties vowed to pass it.