Connecticut advances death notification bill after tragic deaths of 2 Black women

More than three months after the mysterious deaths of two Black women in Bridgeport, Conn., a bill advanced to the full Legislature last week requiring police in the state to notify the family of a deceased person within 24 hours of identification.

House Bill 5349 would require police who respond to “a deceased person or the remains of a person” to notify the family within 24 hours or if not, to document the reason they failed to do so.

State Sen. Dennis Bradley, a co-sponsor of the bill, called it a no-brainer.

"This is such a basic concept that we think should take place in the state of Connecticut to ensure human dignity, we want to make sure that the family is treated with a delicacy in a delicate situation that it deserves,” Bradley said at a public meeting about the bill last month, according to the local NBC affiliate WVIT. "This piece of legislation, although at its first glance sounds pretty fundamental, will be monumental to ensure that we make a bridge between police departments and families."

The bill’s advancement comes after Lauren Smith-Fields, a 23-year-old college student, died on Dec. 12 in her Bridgeport apartment after meeting up with an older man earlier that evening.

Lauren Smith-Fields
Lauren Smith-Fields was found dead in Bridgeport, Conn., on Dec. 12, 2021. (Family photo)

It wasn’t until the next day that Smith-Fields’ mother, Shantell Fields, says she found out about her daughter’s death after finding a note on her apartment door to call the landlord.

“How do I not get any notification that my daughter passed away?” Fields questioned in an interview with Yahoo News in January. “I don't even get grieving time at all.”

It was only after the family called police after speaking to the landlord that Smith-Fields’ family was notified of her death.

Darnell Crosland, the family’s attorney, alleged that police failed on the first day of the investigation.

“There's a typical protocol that's followed when you have a situation like this,” Crosland told Yahoo News. “If you have a husband or wife or boyfriend or girlfriend call the police because one of them is dead, typically the person who is surviving is pivotal to the investigation. Most times they are looked at as a suspect, because they were the last person with the deceased, and in this particular case, the police have been very hesitant to even call this person a ‘person of interest.’”

The man Smith-Fields was last with — identified by her family as Matthew LaFountain — called the police the morning after their date to say she was unresponsive. He was never detained and has yet to be named a person of interest in the case.

In a tragic coincidence, another Bridgeport woman, Brenda Lee Rawls, 53, went to visit a male friend near her home on Dec. 11, but never returned, according to Newsweek. After not hearing from Rawls for two days, her sister, Dorothy Rawls Washington, made a series of distressed calls to the police, only to be told that nothing could be done. It wasn’t until Washington and two family members went to the friend's home that they were told that Rawls had died in her sleep a day earlier, on Dec. 12.

"Nobody ever notified us that she died," Washington told NBC News. "We had to do our own investigation and find out where she was."

After an investigation, the office of the chief medical examiner determined that Rawls died of natural causes, WVIT reported.

"We have to have streamline mechanisms that we can get to the Inspector General rather easier with these cases, because if we're not, we'll be lost in the red tape, and we'll be having a bill with no teeth," said Crosland, an attorney also representing Rawls’s family.

Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim shared his support of the bill as public testimony.

"This bill is about human decency, and the fact that human decency does not stop when someone dies. It extends to the living and to the family and loved ones of the deceased and should be carried out in a respectful and dignified way," he said.