Black Officers Have Tried To Sound The Alarm On The Police Department Overseeing Lauren Smith-Fields' Case For Years

The Lauren Smith-Fields case is just the latest in a string of troubling incidents for the department.

Joseph Prezioso / AFP via Getty Images

A Bridgeport police officer responds to a shooting outside of a COVID-19 vaccination site.

The Connecticut police department under fire for insufficient investigations into the deaths of two Black women has a history of excessive use-of-force and discrimination complaints — some from its own officers. Now, a flurry of social media attention that started with the death of one of those women, Lauren Smith-Fields, has reignited calls for federal oversight of the department.

Since 2017, at least 14 people have filed complaints or lawsuits accusing the Bridgeport Police Department of civil rights violations, including excessive force and racial discrimination. Black officers — including two Black captains who filed lawsuits, sparking an independent probe — have accused the department of a racist and hostile work environment. A former captain resigned in 2018 after texts emerged in which he called an annual Juneteenth celebration an n-word parade. Allegations of police brutality have cost the city millions of dollars in the last two years, according to City Council member Maria Pereira, who represents the district where the two women died.

“It’s constant here: civil rights violations, shooting people in the back, kicking people in the face while they’re down, pistol-whipping young people when their backs are turned,” Pereira told BuzzFeed News. “Our police department is in shambles. At every level — manpower, morale — it’s not functioning.”

Smith-Fields was a 23-year-old Black college student who was found dead of a drug overdose after a first date with a man she’d met on Bumble last December. The investigation has gotten attention on social media from celebrities like Cardi B and the rapper BIA and sharpened criticism that the police and media routinely ignore or underreport violence against Black women. After Smith-Fields’ family raised concerns about the department’s handling of the investigation, including allegations that investigators failed to collect key evidence and didn’t notify them about her death, an army of amateur sleuths on TikTok rallied around the case to draw attention to disparities in how white and Black women’s disappearances are treated by police and the media.

The online pressure reverberated back to Bridgeport, where two detectives were suspended on Sunday and a second family came forward with similar complaints. The family of Brenda Rawls, a 53-year-old Black woman, said they had to start their own investigation to locate her body. She died on Dec. 12, the same day as Smith-Fields.

Ned Gerard / AP

Shantell Fields, Lauren Smith-Fields' mother, speaks during a protest rally in front of the Morton Government Center, in Bridgeport, Conn. Jan. 23, 2022.

Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim said the detectives’ behavior showed a “lack of sensitivity to the public and failure to follow police policy.”

But advocates, local politicians, the NAACP, and even officers within the agency said the recent uproar reflects longstanding concerns about the department.

“There is no surprise but only huge disappointment,” said Rev. D. Stanley Lord, president of the local NAACP, at a press conference Wednesday to urge a wider review of the police department. “This institution must be rehabilitated, reformed, and transformed.”

Connecticut is among the nation’s wealthiest states — and one of its most segregated.

In Bridgeport, the police force is 54% white compared to 20% of residents, only one detective is Black, and 80% of police leaders are white. None of the seven leadership positions within the police department are held by Black officers.

In recent years, complaints from Black officers have offered a window into the department’s internal culture, accusing top leaders of racist conduct and disparate treatment in lawsuits and in the press.

In August 2018, Capt. Mark Straubel, a top aide to the police chief with more than two decades at the agency, stepped down after complaints of racist texts surfaced.

In one text, later published in court documents reviewed by BuzzFeed News, he referred to a local Juneteenth event he was asked to attend as an n-word parade. In another, he said that he asked a Black captain who was in the running to become police chief, Roderick Porter, if seeing the film Planet of the Apes “made him homesick.”

He also called African Americans “a cancer” in texts and said he hoped for a race war.

Straubel himself later argued in a suit that his comments were part of a widespread culture in the agency perpetuated by the former chief, whom he accused of “regularly us[ing] racial slurs,” talking “about genocidal fantasies in reference to members of the Black race,” and being drunk at work.

That chief, Armando Perez, resigned in 2020 and went to prison for obtaining his position through an exam rigging scheme.

Since then, about a dozen Black officers have filed internal complaints about lack of training and opportunities for promotion, disparate discipline, a hostile work environment, and retaliation for speaking up, said Davon Polite, the president of the Guardians, an organization for officers who are people of color. He declined to comment directly on the Smith-Fields and Rawls cases or the department’s use-of-force lawsuits more broadly, citing agency policies.

(Polite, who is half Italian and half Black, was granted probation in 2018 after facing second-degree assault charges for allegedly dragging a man from his car and beating him after the man struck his Mercedes.)

The department’s only Black captains have both filed lawsuits against the agency. They say their responsibilities were curtailed after speaking up against leaders.

One, Roderick Porter, was a finalist for chief in 2018. In lawsuits and complaints with the state, he argues that the department passed him over in favor of Perez “because he had opposed Straubel’s racist comments.” He also accused the agency of a racially hostile work environment and said Perez tried to hide Straubel’s racist messages after he learned of them and failed to investigate.

In 2019, a spokesperson for Mayor Ganim said he was “outraged by the racist remarks” of Straubel. But in court filings, the city denied that Perez was aware of the contents of Straubel’s messages and said Internal Affairs did investigate the matter at the time, noting that Straubel was put on administrative leave. The city also denied that Porter was more qualified for the job of acting chief, saying that Perez “was a police officer longer, had more experience in command positions and was well liked in the community.” Ganim denied participating in Perez’s scheme or advocating for him to become chief.

After Perez stepped down, pleaded guilty, and went to prison, Porter was the only remaining candidate for the job of acting chief from the previous list of finalists, but the city chose Capt. Rebeca Garcia instead. Last November, a judge found her promotion was also part of Perez’s exam rigging scheme. She continues to serve as acting chief while the city appeals the decision and the mayor decides on next steps. After 300 community members marched to his office demanding action in the Smith-Fields case, Mayor Ganim demanded the department present him with three new finalists for the police chief job within 150 days.

In court filings, the city said ​​that “the undisputed facts demonstrate that Porter was not subjected to a hostile work environment and that the decision not to select him as the Chief of the Bridgeport Police Department (the “Chief”), the Acting Chief, or the Assistant/Deputy Chief was not based on his race or color.”

A representative for the city, Scott Appleby, said that promotions within the police department “are conducted by a civil service exam process.”

“Regarding any discrimination complaints, the City of Bridgeport and the Police Department take these matters seriously,” Appleby said via email. “The City immediately refers each complaint to an outside firm that specializes in employment matters for independent investigations.”

The cases are still open, and last September, the agency appointed an independent investigator to look into the racial discrimination allegations. Thomas Bucci, an attorney for the Guardians, said they have yet to receive an update.

“There’s just absolutely no transparency as to what has taken place,” said Bucci, who served two terms as Bridgeport’s mayor in the 1980s. “Everything is being done as if we are dealing with highly classified information, which should be in the public record anyway.”

Racial discrimination within the Bridgeport Police Department is nothing new. “It goes back to ’70s, ’80s, ’90s,” Captain Porter told BuzzFeed News. “We were under special master federal oversight for a number of years.”

The Bridgeport Police Department operated under federal oversight from 1983 to 2010, or nearly thirty years. The agency’s issues with race were so blatant in the 1980s — of 33 Black officers, all but one patrolled the most dangerous neighborhoods — a federal judge had assigned a special master to ensure equal opportunity, with powers to administer, assign, and discipline officers, which the agency had to pay for.

But ever since the agreement dissolved, the agency has been in “a downward spiral,” said Lord, the local NAACP president.

Black officers have been calling for federal oversight to be reinstated for months, and they have been joined by advocates and council member Pereira.

“We need court oversight,” said Polite, the Guardians president. “If we are being mistreated in this department, with our own people here, you can imagine what is going on outside.”

Darnell Crosland, the attorney for Smith-Fields’ family, plans to join their call with a formal request to the Department of Justice. The family does not have confidence in the Bridgeport Police Department’s ability to properly investigate their daughter’s death, he told BuzzFeed News.

“When you have a state that’s riddled with a level of corruption and racial insensitivity, then it's hard to take at their word what their findings are,” he said.

These racism allegations come amid a series of instances and claims of police brutality centered on aggressive policing in communities of color.

The family of Jayson Negron, a 15-year-old killed by a Bridgeport officer in a shooting the state attorney found justified, filed a federal lawsuit in 2020 accusing the agency of fostering a culture of “grossly negligent, reckless, and deliberately indifferent conduct.”

Last October, an officer was suspended twice in one month for using excessive force on teenagers. In one instance he was caught on video smacking a teenager in the back of his head with a firearm. In another, he violated the department’s use-of-force policy when he used a stun gun on a 17-year-old, according to the agency. Later that month, the same officer was sued for allegedly slamming a man into a vehicle and striking him in the head. He is still a Bridgeport police officer.

Also in 2021, a federal court ordered a former officer to pay $350,000 for the wrongful shooting of a 21-year-old man in the back in 2013.

Those cases came on the heels of a major investigation into 46 officers who responded to a noise complaint at a 12-year-old’s birthday costume party that devolved into beatings and arrests in 2017. At least four people launched civil suits against the city for their treatment that night, including Carmelo Mendez, who said an officer struck him with a flashlight, causing him head trauma.

Mendez told BuzzFeed News that he felt his complaints were initially dismissed because he is Latino and the officers who beat him were white. He and his lawyer were unable to obtain the internal investigation files for months, until the Connecticut Post submitted a public information request. “As a resident, we are saying if we call a police officer and he’s white, and I’m Latino or African American, he’s not going to handle the situation as if it was another white dude,” Mendez said.

Once released, the report showed investigators faulted 17 officers for a range of violations, including excessive force, lying, and using slurs.

Soon after, Mendez won a settlement for more than $340,000.

But all the officers who participated remain at the agency. Mendez had hoped the investigation would spark deeper change. “It was so disappointing,” Mendez said. “Even though I had videos, both police officers are still working.”

Appleby, the city representative, said that “Incidents involving any officer involved use of force are independently investigated by the State of Connecticut.”

Lord, the local NAACP leader, expressed frustration that it’s taken the deaths of two local Black women to bring more attention to the department’s patterns. “Our mayor now all of a sudden wants to say, ‘Oh, we’re really sorry about what happened to these individuals, but we're doing something about it,’” he told BuzzFeed News. “Well, where were you several weeks ago? It’s only after a public outcry and major news that you want to do something.”