Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect that an "intervenor" motion was filed in U.S. District Court by neighbors of a disputed South Street cell tower on May 25, the day after the City Council meeting.
PITTSFIELD — In a break from the ongoing fiscal 2023 budget talks, city councilors this week turned their attention to a bevy of petitions around mental health supports.
During their meeting on Tuesday, councilors spoke about feeling compelled to act after months of hearing the community’s cries for more resources and better outcomes for residents struggling with their mental health.
Here are the top three items of discussion:
Consider developing mental health supports
Over the course of the meeting, the council unanimously voted to request Pittsfield’s state and federal delegation look for additional funding and resources for mental health to direct to the city.
The petition was submitted by community organizer Tonya Frazier and councilors Peter Marchetti, Pete White and Kevin Sherman.
“The problem has been identified,” Frazier said. “People have been killed, people have taken their own lives or turned to other substances to numb the pain of not having what they need: help.”
“Anything we do today doesn’t solve it,” Sherman said, “[but] we need to keep taking steps in order to get where we want to go.”
The council also voted to ask the state delegation support a bill in the Legislature that would create an alternative for community emergency services for law enforcement program.
A related petition by Councilor Ken Warren to appropriate $75,000 to evaluate the creation of an Alternative Community Emergency Services (ACES) program was referred to Mayor Linda Tyer and the Committee of the Whole.
The local NAACP chapter is calling on Pittsfield’s elected leaders to overhaul how the city responds to people in the throes of a mental health crisis – and to consider shifting that duty away from police.
Programs working off of an ACES model have gained quick support following the fatal shooting by Pittsfield Police of Miguel Estrella during a mental health crisis call.
The Berkshire County branch of the NAACP recently called on the council to support the ACES bill, which would put resources to “non-law enforcement, unarmed community-based” responses to 911 calls.
The bill has received the support of former mayor Sara Hathaway, a member of the Pittsfield School Committee who, in the wake of Estrella’s killing, called for the city to step away from “co-responder” programs and toward “alternative response” programs.
BolaWraps a bust?
Councilors questioned a report submitted by Pittsfield Police Chief Michael Wynn that said none of the 15 BolaWraps purchased by the department with federal grant money had been used in a “live deployment.”
Wynn’s report noted that the department used almost $14,000 of a nearly $40,000 grant it received last year to buy the BolaWraps, a form of remote handcuffs. Police can fire a cord at a subject, entangling and securing them, according to the company’s website.
In documents the department submitted as part of its grant application, Wynn writes that BolaWraps and additional Tasers “will reduce the need for higher uses of force and will reduce injuries to subjects experiencing a crisis situation.”
Pittsfield Police officers reportedly used Tasers, which failed, against Estrella before resorting to lethal force, according to a preliminary use of force report.
Local police departments across Berkshire County will be seeing more than $250,000 in federal grants for law enforcement and traffic safety.
Councilors said they were frustrated and confused about why the tools they had been promised would be used for less lethal disarmament hadn’t been used at all in the last year.
“We’re looking at trying to find solutions to some of the things that’ve had happened in our community and we all had high hopes on these BolaWraps being deployed more often in situations of disarmament,” White said.
Lt. Gary Traversa told the council that the entire police force was trained on how to use the devices last June, but they often sit in the back of the on patrol cruisers — less accessible than the Taser or gun on every officers’ belt.
“They’re a specific-use tool,” Traversa said. He added that BolaWraps are intended to restrain someone who isn’t already moving. “We just haven’t run into that situation.”
Mum on cell tower lawsuit
The City Council chose not to take up an item on file under the unfinished business section of the agenda on the Board of Health’s findings on the health impacts to neighbors living near a Verizon Wireless cell tower at 877 South St.
Baked into the communication from the Board of Health is a request for the council to allocate money to hire attorneys to defend a recent emergency order issued against the telecommunications company.
Board officials came to a City Council meeting late last month prepared to ask for up to $84,000 to hire two attorneys to help the board issue and defend a cease-and-desist order against the cell tower. That push was stopped in its tracks when the council learned in an executive session that Verizon had filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court of Massachusetts.
Verizon’s complaint asks Judge Mark Mastroianni for “an expedited review” of whether the board’s emergency order violates the federal Telecommunications Act of 1996.
The council refrained from discussing whether or not it should fund the board’s defense. The following day a group of six neighbors to the tower asked the court to add them to the case as “intervenors” — essentially a third party with a recognized investment in a case.
Verizon Wireless is asking a federal court to block the Pittsfield Board of Health from enforcing its order demanding the company defend the safety of its tower at 877 South St. Residents of the neighborhood say the 4G tower is causing health problems.
Attorneys for Courtney Gilardi, Charlie Herzig, Judy Herzig, Mark Markham, Angelika Markham and Elaine Ireland argue that the residents should be added to the case because they live within the immediate vicinity of the tower, are “among the group of residents harmed” by the tower, and are named in the board’s original emergency order.
The group also says that they have reason to believe that the Board of Health “may not choose to raise all available defenses available to the board or the city of Pittsfield may utilize its authority to control litigation” and “settle this proceeding.”