‘We had to dig.’ Families of Bridgeport women testify in favor of death notification bill in response to their cases

Lawmakers held a public hearing Wednesday on a proposed bill in response to the high-profile cases of Lauren Smith-Fields and Brenda Lee Rawls. Their families said they were never notified by Bridgeport police about their loved ones' deaths. The legislation, House Bill 5349, would require police to inform next of kin of a person's death within 24 hours of identification. 
"The way my daughter's death was handled by police is simply an atrocity," Smith-Fields' father, Everette Smith, told the state Judiciary Committee. "We didn't even get a phone call. We had to search and dig and find."
Smith-Fields was found dead in her Bridgeport apartment on Dec. 12. Smith-Fields' mother, Shantell Fields, testified how she went to her daughter's apartment after calls and text messages went unanswered. Fields said she found a note on the door from the landlord to call him.
"He was the one who told my son and I that my daughter was deceased. It was not the Bridgeport Police Department," said Fields. "When it comes to Black and brown people, you need to treat us like we're human. I just need everyone to be treated as a human being and be notified of their family's loss and be treated with respect and kindness, which the Bridgeport department did not allow us."
Under the legislation, if police can't contact family in a timely matter, they would have to "document the reason for the failure or delay of notification and any attempts made to make such notification." Officers who don't comply would be reported to the state's Office of the Inspector General for investigation and potential suspension or removal.
Brenda Lee Rawls' family also asked lawmakers to pass this bill. The 50-year-old died at an acquaintance's home in Bridgeport the same day as Smith-Fields - Dec. 12 in an unrelated incident.
"We had to also search for our sister," said Rawls' sister Dorothy Washington. "We found her two days later at the coroner's office."
Rawls' family testified they tracked down her body through their own efforts after learning Rawls might be dead.
"I said to my sister, 'If Brenda died, we would have been notified by police,' Rawls' other sister, Dierdre Owen, told committee members. "Their actions or inactions concerning this unfortunate event proved them to be incompetent, negligent, insensitive and disrespectful and has added insult to injury,"
The two Bridgeport detectives who initially investigated both cases were suspended. The department is conducting an internal investigation into alleged violations of the department's policy.
State Rep. Steve Stafstrom, D-Bridgeport, wrote the legislation after meeting with Smith-Fields' family. "I really wish this bill was not necessary, but unfortunately it most certainly is based on what we have seen," Stafstrom said during the hearing.
Stafstrom's colleagues from both parties backed the bill.
"I want to assure those testifying - we are not just listening. We intend to take action," state Rep. Bob Godfrey, D-Danbury, pledged.
"I look forward to working with my colleagues on the other side of the aisle and the leadership in this committee to make sure what happened to you doesn't happen to anyone else in the state," said state Rep. Greg Howard, R-Stonington. "A lot of what's contained in this bill is what should just be happening anyway."
"It's more than common sense—it's common courtesy," added state Rep. Robyn Porter, D-Hamden. "You all definitely have my support when it comes to making sure we get this out of committee and over the finish line."
State Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, got emotional listening to the families share their pain. "There are a lot of people who've been watching your situation and feel it deeply," Winfield said choking up. "And a lot of people, when we pass the bill, will be better for the work that you've done, so thank you."