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New London police target of lawsuit related to hanging in jail cell

January 17, 2019

New London — The family of a man who used a hospital gown to hang himself in a holding cell at police headquarters filed a wrongful death suit against New London police this week, claiming the 2017 death of Donovan Chaney was the result of police negligence.

The suit, served to the city on Tuesday, alleges that after his treatment at Lawrence + Memorial Hospital for self-inflicted cuts to his own wrist, Chaney was taken into police custody and left unmonitored for an estimated 41 minutes. He was being held at police headquarters on a host of charges related to a domestic violence incident on Jan. 16, 2017.

Chaney created a noose from his hospital gown and hung himself in the holding cell, the suit alleges, and died in the hospital two weeks later. The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner ruled the Jan. 31, 2017 death a suicide, caused by neck compression.

The suit alleges that police failed to identify Chaney, 55, as a suicide risk despite his attempted suicide hours earlier and did not properly monitor Chaney in his cell, either in person or by video surveillance.

The suit, which names the city, several police officers and emergency dispatchers, was filed on behalf of Donovan’s estate by his daughter, Jennifer Cook. Cook is represented by Waterford attorney Christine S. Synodi.

On Jan. 16, at about 8:13 p.m., police had responded to a 911 call for a disturbance. Responding officers found Chaney bleeding from self-inflicted cuts to the wrist and “acting in an erratic and violent manner,” the suit alleges.

He was taken to the hospital with a police escort and continued to act erratically and physically restrained by police. The suit claims Chaney was diagnosed with anxiety, depression, self-mutilation and laceration of the right wrist by emergency room personnel.

He was discharged from the hospital and booked at police headquarters sometime after midnight on Jan. 17. Records show Chaney was charged with disorderly conduct, second-degree criminal mischief, second-degree unlawful restraint, third-degree assault, interfering with a 911 call, second-degree threatening and criminal attempt to commit assault on a police officer.

“Donovan Chaney was released into custody of the New London Police Department by treating emergency staff at Lawrence Memorial Hospital based on representations made by (officers at the department) that the New London Police Department had suicide precautions and were capable of observing Donovan Chaney to prevent further harm,” the suit alleges.

The suit alleges Officer Wayne Neff performed the suicide screening and did not indicate Chaney was a suicide risk.

“Officer Neff provided Chaney with his street clothing and discarded Chaney’s hospital johnnie by throwing it down the hallway in front of cell no. 1 and/or somewhere near the cell which housed Chaney,” the suit alleges. “Immediately after being left in his cell at approximately 1:31 (a.m.), Chaney began a course of events and actions in furtherance of his suicide by hanging, by retrieving his discarded hospital johnnie and using it to fashion a noose and ligature,” the suit alleges.

The suit claims Chaney was “unsupervised, unchecked and unmonitored by employees of the NLPD despite their ministerial duty to monitor the prisoner in accordance with Department General Orders…” Department policy dictates that prisoners not only be monitored on the surveillance cameras but also physically checked every 30 minutes, the suit alleges.

The suit alleges he was left unmonitored between 1:31 a.m. and 2:12 a.m. when it was discovered he had hung himself in his cell, “the result of negligence and carelessness.”

Synodi declined comment on the suit. A representative from the city was not immediately available to comment. The Day has filed a Freedom of Information request with the New London Police Department and Connecticut state police for reports related to a state police investigation into Chaney’s death.

The lawsuit comes just a week after the city spent $175,000 to settle a lawsuit with the family of 31-year-old Lashano Gilbert, who died on Oct. 4, 2014 after escaping a holding cell at police headquarters and fighting with police.

g.smith@theday.com  

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