Bridgeport detectives suspended over handling of probes into deaths of 2 Black women
Mayor Joe Ganim of Bridgeport, Conn., has suspended two police officers involved in investigating the deaths of two Black women, after weeks of increasing scrutiny over the department's handling of the cases.
Ganim said in a statement shared with NPR on Sunday that he was "extremely disappointed" with the leadership of the Bridgeport Police Department and called "actions taken up to this point unacceptable." After further review, he said, he had directed the department to put detectives Angel Llanos and Kevin Cronin on administrative leave.
Both detectives are the subject of an internal investigation and possible disciplinary action for "lack of sensitivity to the public and failure to follow police policy," Ganim said, and will remain on leave until those reviews have been completed.
In addition, an unidentified supervisory officer who was "in charge of overseeing these matters" retired from the department on Friday, he said.
Both officers were involved in investigations into the deaths of Lauren Smith-Fields and Brenda Lee Rawls, Black women who were both found dead on Dec. 12 and whose families have for weeks accused police of not taking their cases seriously.
The two cases remain under active investigation and have been reassigned to other police officers, Ganim said.
"The Bridgeport Police Department has high standards for officer sensitivity especially in matters involving the death of a family member," he added. "It is an unacceptable failure if policies were not followed. To the families, friends and all who care about the human decency that should be shown in these situations in this case by members of the Bridgeport Police Department, I am very sorry."
The police department declined to comment on the two cases, citing the internal investigations.
"As this has become a personnel matter, the department has no additional statement," said Scott Appleby, director of the city's office of emergency management.
Lauren Smith-Fields' family has slammed police for their handling of the case
The department has faced mounting criticism for its handling of the investigation into the death of Smith-Fields, a 23-year-old college student who was found dead in her apartment after spending the night with a man she had met on a dating app.
Smith-Fields' family says they learned of her death not from police, but from a note her landlord left on her apartment door when they came by after she didn't return their calls.
They also accuse the police of failing to process potentially key pieces of evidence — like bloody sheets, a used condom and a pill — on the scene, refusing to interview her date (who called for help after he says he found her unresponsive in bed) and being similarly dismissive in subsequent phone calls from her concerned loved ones.
The family's attorney, Darnell Crosland, has said they intend to sue the city over the police department's "racially insensitive" handling of the case. Their calls for justice have picked up steam in recent weeks, aided by social media users, rapper Cardi B and an in-person rally on what would have been Smith-Fields' 24th birthday last month.
After the medical examiner's office ruled Smith-Fields' death an accidental overdose of "Fentanyl combined with prescription medication and alcohol" last week, Bridgeport police said they had opened a criminal investigation into "the factors that led to her untimely death."
In his statement, Ganim thanked Crosland, the victims' families and the thousands of other people who had asked questions that "still need answers."
"I as mayor, but also as a father, cannot fully comprehend what you must be going through," he said. "I can only pledge my continued support to try to ease your pain by getting answers and holding those responsible accountable."
Rawls' death has received less attention
Rawls' family is also alleging that Bridgeport police have not adequately investigated her death, though her story has been slower to make headlines.
Dorothy Rawls Washington told NBC News that her 53-year-old sister, Brenda, told family members that she planned to go to the home of a male acquaintance who lived down the street on Dec. 11. They weren't able to reach her for the next two days.
She said that when two of her sisters, her niece and her niece's boyfriend showed up at the man's house on Dec. 14, he told them that he was unable to wake Rawls up and that she had died.
"He gave me the clothing that she had on and her shoes," Angela Rawls Martin, another sister, told NBC. "I don't understand why that was left behind."
Rawls' family said they had to conduct their own investigation to figure out where she was, trying police, hospitals and funeral homes before getting their answer from the state's medical examiner. The medical examiner says the cause of death is pending further study, while the manner of death is pending investigation.
"They never took any opportunity to look for next of kin," Washington said. "The next time we saw our sister, she was in a funeral home."
Rawls' family — like that of Smith-Fields — is accusing police not only of failing to notify them of their loved ones' death, but also of mishandling the subsequent investigation into its cause.
Martin said that when she asked a police sergeant whether officers had searched her sister's apartment or the man's residence, he told her it was not in the police report. She told NBC News that same sergeant also apologized and told her that police had "dropped the ball." Washington also said that police department gave them the name of a detective to contact, but that she never heard from him even after calling him four or five times.
"It's almost like they're not aware of her death, or they just don't care and that made us angry," Washington told CNN, referring to city and police officials. "She was raised and born in Bridgeport, Conn., paid her taxes, voted and they treated like she was nothing. Like she was roadkill."
In a statement to NPR, a city official said Ganim conducted a review of how death notices were handled for both Rawls and Smith-Fields "and found that in both cases officers did not follow the proper policy."
"As a death notification is not just a procedure, but a matter of humanity, he found that NOT following the policy was also insensitive to the deceased and their families," the statement read.
Ganim has previously said that he will work with police leadership to make immediate changes to the department's policies around notifying family members of a death.
"I want to be clear to members of the public and the department that insensitivity, disrespect in action, or deviation from policy will not be tolerated by me or others in this administration," he said on Sunday. "My disappointment and demand for accountability in these and any other matter brought to my attention will remain until all the questions are answered to the satisfaction of all."
This story originally appeared in the Morning Edition live blog.