Ned Gerard/Hearst Connecticut Media
Police in Bridgeport, Connecticut have opened a criminal investigation into the death of Lauren Smith-Fields after weeks of criticism over the department’s handling of the case.
The 23-year-old black woman was found dead in her apartment in mid-December, shortly after meeting a man from a dating app. Members of his family have accused the police department of not informing them of his death and mishandling the ensuing investigation, and intend to prosecute what their lawyer described as his “insensitive to racism” file support.
The Connecticut Chief Medical Examiner’s Office said Monday that Smith-Fields’ death was an accident resulting from “an overdose of fentanyl combined with prescription drugs and alcohol,” according to a police statement. shared with NPR via email. He said Brideport’s Narcotics and Police Vice Division has opened a criminal investigation and will be assisted by the United States Drug Enforcement Administration.
“The Bridgeport Police Department continues to treat the untimely death of Lauren Smith-Fields as an active investigation as we now refocus our attention and efforts on the factors that led to her untimely death,” Chief Rebeca Garcia said. , adding that several partners will be assisting with this part of the investigation and anyone with information should call 203 576-TIPS.
The family’s attorney, Darnell Crosland, said on Twitter that the medical examiner’s findings had left them with more questions than answers.
“I have never seen a medical examiner conclude that a drug mix-up was an accident without knowing who provided the drugs or how they were ingested,” he added. “Lauren did not use drugs.”
Also on Monday, Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim announced he had referred the police department’s handling of the case to his Home Affairs Office, saying in a statement shared with NPR that “there is no has no tolerance for anything less than respect and sensitivity for family members”. and their loss.”
Ganimi added that he shared the “concerns expressed by many about the timing and manner in which a family is notified of a loss”, and pledged to work with the police chief to make urgent policy changes. department regarding notifying family members of a death. .
“I recognize that the family and the community are feeling a lot of pain because of the loss of a young woman in addition to the unanswered questions and concerns about how the case was handled,” Ganim said.
Here’s what we know so far.
Smith-Field date called police after finding her unconscious
Officers responded to a call for service at Smith-Fields’ Bridgeport apartment on Dec. 12 and discovered upon arrival that she had “unexpectedly passed away,” according to the police department.
They found Smith-Fields lying on her back on the ground, with dried blood in and around her right nostril, according to a police report. shared with CNN and other media. (NPR asked city and police department officials for a copy of the report.)
The man who made the call was also at the scene when police arrived. His name was redacted in the report, although BNC News identified him as a 37-year-old white man (many outlets, including NPR, are withholding his name as he faces no charges).
The report said he performed chest compressions under the direction of the emergency operator on the phone, and described him as frantic, “shaky and visibly shaken”. He told police he met Smith-Fields on the dating app Bumble three days earlierand had met her for the first time the previous night.
The man told police that Smith-Fields had invited him over, and the two were taking shots of tequila when she fell ill and went to the bathroom to vomit. When she returned, he said, they drank more tequila from mixers, played games, ate food and started watching a movie.
Smith-Fields fell asleep on the sofa, and the man allegedly carried her to bed and fell asleep next to her. He said he heard her snoring when he woke up early in the morning to go to the bathroom. When he woke up around 6:30 a.m., he saw that she was not breathing and had blood pouring from her nose, and called the police.
Doctors said she had been dead for at least an hour, according to the report.
His family say the police ignored both the evidence and his relatives
Smith-Fields’ family argue that police failed to notify them of his death and failed to collect key evidence from the scene.
Crosland filed a legal opinion last week in a scheduled lawsuit against the city and the police department, alleging that — in addition to failing to properly investigate Smith-Fields’ death — police violated rights family civilians.
Crosland told CNN Smith-Fields’ family didn’t learn of his death until two days later, through a note from his landlord. They had visited her apartment because “Christmas dinner was supposed to be at Lauren’s house that year” and she had not returned their calls.
“When I arrived there was a note on the door saying, ‘If you’re looking for Lauren, call this number,'” said Shantell Fields, her mother. CBS News.
His brother, Tavar Gray-Smith, said a detective later told him they didn’t need to contact family members because “we had his passport and ID, so we knew who she was.”
Officers recovered some items from the scene — such as cash, his passport, a credit card and his cell phone — as evidence, according to the police report.
But Smith-Fields’ family say potentially key pieces of evidence were not processed until two weeks later when police returned to his apartment at their request. These include bloody sheets, drinks, a pill and a condom containing semen.
The family also alleges that police refused to interview the man who reported her death as a person of interest.
“When we asked about this guy, [the initial detective on the case said] ‘he was a nice guy, there was no need to investigate'”, Lauren’s father, Everett Smith, told ABC affiliate WTNH.
They also said the first detective assigned to the case told them to stop calling to ask questions about the investigation and at some point hung up on his father. They were told the detective had since been removed from the investigation, reports CBS News.
Crosland told CNN the family “isn’t paranoid” about perceived racial insensitivity. He pointed to the varying levels of resources and attention given to the investigation into the disappearance and death of Gabby Petito last fall, which many noted as disproportionate to the kind of attention typically given to Indigenous women. missing and people of color.
“We won’t stop until justice is served for Lauren and the thousands of black girls who go missing every year in this country,” Crosland said. “We owe them equal rights and justice regardless of their race and we won’t stop fighting until we get it.”
Their push for justice draws national attention
Sunday would have been Smith-Fields’ 24th anniversary. Supporters and community members marked it with a rally, marching from the police department to the city government center to demand answers from officials.
Smith-Fields’ family has reflected on his life and called for humanity and justice in the investigation into his death.
The Stamford High School runway star was studying cosmetology at Norwalk Community College and owned her own business on the side, according to News 12 Westchester. Her brothers remembered her as bubbly, generous and funny.
“Nobody’s going to throw my daughter away like she’s garbage,” Fields said, according to pictures of the rally. “She’s not garbage. She had a life, she had a business, she was in college and she had family and friends who loved her.”
His family reiterated their calls for the state to conduct an independent investigation and for lawmakers to pass a law that would require families to be notified of the deaths of their loved ones in a timely manner. State Sen. Dennis Bradley said he has submitted a bill about it, WTNH reports.
They also reportedly paid for an independent autopsy out of pocket and set up a online fundraising page hoping to hire a private investigator to conduct their own parallel investigation.
Bumble released several statements in the wake of Smith-Fields’ death.
In an initial statement shared with NPR, the company said it has reached out to his family directly to offer support and is prepared to provide any information requested by law enforcement. A Bumble spokesperson later told NPR that “law enforcement has not requested any customer information to date.”
His most recent statement took the form of a Instagram post Wednesday, in which he said “we continue to be troubled by this loss” and called for a “thorough and serious investigation.”
News notes that people have been posting about the case — and the lack of progress — on social media apps like TikTok and Instagram for weeks. Rapper Cardi B also tweeted about the weekend tragedy, which Crosland later told TMZ “played a decisive role” in the police’s decision to open a criminal investigation.
Growing calls for justice and news of a criminal investigation have sparked an explosion of national media coverage in recent days.
“Lauren was brilliant,” her brother, Tavar Gray-Smith, told CBS. “She had a future, and the world knows she should be here, and that’s why [the news is] go viral like this.”
This story originally appeared in the morning edition live blog.