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 on the 23rd, which would have been her 24th birthday. Ned Gerard / Hearst Connecticut Media

The Public Safety and Security Committee voted 13-10 Monday to advance a bill that would require police to tell family members that their loved ones have died within 24 hours of identifying a body.

House Bill 5349 was inspired by two separate high-profile cases in Bridgeport in which Black women had died and police failed to quickly notify their families.

The bill empowers the inspector general, the state’s independent prosecutor who investigates police use of deadly force, to conduct investigations if police don’t make a documented effort to notify families their loved ones have died. The inspector general could then make recommendations to the Police Officers Standards and Training Council on whether to discipline an officer or supervisor.

The bill passed almost unanimously out of the Judiciary Committee — two Republicans voted against — when it came up for a vote on March 29. Monday’s vote in the Public Safety Committee was much tighter. All nine Republicans voted against the measure, as did Rep. Jill Barry, D-Glastonbury.

The bill’s tighter margin comes five days after the inspector general announced criminal charges for a police officer who killed a Black teenager in 2020.

Several Republicans expressed concern over the inspector general’s role described in the bill.

Sen. Dan Champagne, R-Vernon, said he’s worried about this bill because of the powers afforded to the inspector general. 

Champagne also said he had an issue with his job and livelihood being on the line if he wasn’t able to notify a family within 24 hours. 

Champagne, who served as a police officer for 22 years, said he was concerned the bill could rush police departments to notify a death, and a lot would end up being over the phone. He said you should notify a family member’s death in person so that person has support. 

“If that person has a medical issue, when you’re notifying them, somebody should be present,” Champagne said. “And what this bill is telling everybody is that no, you just need to make that notification so that you’re covered under law.”

Rep. Rick Hayes, R-Putnam, said he agreed with Champagne and thinks the law would hurt more than it helps. 

“I can see what someone that’s never done police work sees in this bill, that you think you’re doing good,” Hayes said. “This bill is not doing that. This bill is going to take away in-person death notifications. It’s going to hurt families.”

Republicans weren’t the only ones who expressed concerns about the proposal.

Rep. Michael DiGiovancarlo, D-Waterbury, said the bill would hurt police officers like himself.

“I do not see this affecting policing at all,” DiGiovancarlo said. “I’ve seen some bad policing bills over the last few years that really have handcuffed law enforcement.”

Despite his concerns, DiGiovancarlo ultimately voted in favor of the bill.

Rep. Antonio Felipe, D-Bridgeport, said it is most important for families to know right away that their family member has died. 

Felipe said he supports the bill despite others’ concerns. 

“I don’t think that this is going to have this overarching effect on our police department,” Felipe said. “I don’t think that there’s going to be a bunch of police decertified for these situations. We made sure that there was a good faith effort in there because if you make that effort, we are not going to penalize you for it.” 

Rep. Patrick Boyd, D-Pomfret, said notifying one’s family of a death is one of the most important things law enforcement is tasked to do, and he hopes the bill passes.

“This also does seem like a work in progress,” Boyd said. “I talked to some of the advocates about it over the weekend. And you know, they’re not opposing the bill, largely because of what they consider to be standard practice. And they all seem to be pointing to a particular department that did not handle this well.”

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Jessica BravoGeneral Assignment Reporter

Jessica is CT Mirror's Emma Bowen Foundation general assignment reporter for the 2022 / 2023 academic year. She is currently a senior at Central Connecticut State University pursuing her bachelor’s degree in journalism. She also works at her school’s newspaper, The Recorder, and peer mentored first-year undergraduates at Central. Jessica is a Connecticut native through and through.