PITTSFIELD — The Pittsfield Police Department's final report on the shooting of Miguel Estrella confirmed its preliminary finding, in late April, that an officer was justified in using deadly force.
Though that final 49-page report was completed May 16, it was not made public at the time by the department. This week, the city’s Police Advisory and Review Board revealed that it had been denied access to the report.
The Berkshire Eagle obtained a copy of the final report through a public records request.
The final report addresses in detail whether officers Christopher Coffey and Nicholas Sondrini violated any of the Pittsfield Police Department’s policies or state laws on use of force when they responded on March 25 to a call to Estrella's apartment building on Onota Street.
Though heavily redacted, the report, and other documents related to it, provide a fuller picture of how the the police department's Force Investigation Team concluded that Coffey and Sondrini “complied with and their use of force ... [and] were within the Pittsfield Police Department policies and procedures, training guidelines and Massachusetts” statutes.
It also reveals that the department's internal investigative team was unable to interview an unspecified number of witnesses to the shooting and faced barriers in obtaining information from the Berkshire District Attorney's Office.
Further, the report breaks down and supports, point by point, why officers on the scene concluded during a first emergency call to the address that Estrella was not considered to be a candidate for civil commitment under state law, in which a person in crisis is transported for care.
"[Redacted] did not exhibit any signs of being a person in [redacted] during call #22-10866," the report states.
Late that Friday night in March, the officers fired their Tasers at Estrella, who friends say was in the midst of a mental health crisis, but were unable to resolve the incident using less-than-lethal means. Sondrini then shot and killed Estrella.
The final report — completed May 16 — matches the findings of the team’s preliminary report — completed April 21 and made public April 27 in the form of a four-page press release.
The Berkshire District Attorney's Office's own investigation into the shooting upheld the findings, concluding that Sondrini used legal authority and acted in self-defense in making the decision to shoot Estrella.
In a presentation Aug. 5, Berkshire District Attorney Andrea Harrington said Sondrini and other officers exhausted all available means to defuse the confrontation. The DA's inquiry found that the use of force was “proportional to the threatened harm.”
Timeline of internal probe
Pittsfield Police Chief Michael Wynn convened the investigation team March 26, the day after the shooting. It was composed of a supervisor, detective, use of force instructor and a member of the officers’ union.
Over the course of nearly three weeks, the team studied call logs, radio transmissions, surveillance camera footage, interviews with officers and witnesses and data from the weapons used by the officers.
The final report notes that several witnesses refused to meet with the department and offer statements.
It also says the team was unable to get free access to materials under the control of the Berkshire District Attorney's Office. “[The] District Attorney’s office was not providing FIT with any additional information (witness statements, [redacted] reports, [redacted] reports, ballistic information, crime scene photographs, any additional video surveillance, cell phone video or photographs, etc.),” the report said.
During an April 4 meeting, the FIT unit discussed information it had not been able to compile, including crime scene photos that had not been made available. The group concluded that the materials "would not be influential in determining whether officers complied with the policies and procedures of the Pittsfield Police Department."
On April 10, two work weeks after the team was assembled, it provided a preliminary report to Wynn, offering the conclusion that “Officer Sondrini and Officer Coffey acted within the departmental policies and procedures and training guidelines of the Pittsfield Police Department.”
Wynn reported the use of force to the National Use of Force Data Collection Database on April 12. The chief returned the report to the FIT two days later, asking the group to include additional information, “including review of the 2021 Massachusetts Police Reform Use of Force CMR Laws and an analysis if the officers complied with the new law.”
The final report says that “this comparison was already conducted … during the first analysis … just not described in the report.”
A letter to Wynn about the preliminary report, dated April 21, described how over the week after Wynn instructed the team to revise the report, members of the FIT attempted to interview witnesses quoted in a March 28 Berkshire Eagle article on the shooting, as well as other witnesses. Those attempts were unsuccessful.
The final version of the preliminary report was shared with Wynn on April 21. The department released it to the public April 27.
Three days after the final report was completed May 16, Wynn wrote in a letter: “I have reviewed the investigative report of the Force Investigation Team and concur with their findings.”
This past week, the city's Police Advisory and Review Board disclosed at a regular meeting that it had not been allowed to review the report because it did not fall under the board’s authority, as established by city ordinance.
Ellen Maxon, chair of the board, said that as of Friday afternoon, her panel was still under the impression that it would not be receiving the report from the city.
Documents heavily redacted
The report, a May 19 statement from Wynn and an April 21 letter from the FIT explaining the investigation process were provided Thursday to The Eagle. All of the documents included extensive redactions, not just of identifying names of key figures in the incident, but of already publicly available information.
By cross-referencing the report with a binder of data provided to The Eagle by the DA’s office, the newspaper was able to decipher many of the redacted words.
For example, the department redacted segments of the second 911 call received before officers responded to Estrella’s apartment.
The transcript of the call provided by the DA’s office reads: “My nephew is out there. I don’t know what’s going on but I just got a call and they say he’s cutting himself, his face is cut, his neck is cut and I don’t want him … and he just cut himself deep, man.”
The transcript included in the final report redacts the words “nephew,” “cutting” and “cut”. A later segment of the call included in the report in which the caller reveals that Estrella has a history of mental health issues redacts the phrase “mental health.”
These phrases are consistently redacted in the final report, as well as terms that describe Estrella’s mental state, the words “alcohol” and “alcoholic,” “taser,” “EMT,” “hospital,” “ambulance,” “wounds,” “lethal,” “shots” and “shooting.”
The report also includes a redacted segment of a Berkshire Eagle article dated March 28, blacking out the words “taser,” “tased,” “weapon,” “gun,” “gunshots,” “shot” and “killed,” as well as Estrella’s name and the name of his girlfriend.
The report includes reference to the policies the department used to determine that Coffey and Sondrini had acted in accordance with their training. But even those did not escape redaction.
The FIT lists several policies it reviewed when judging Sondrini and Coffey’s actions: the department’s use of force policy, “conducted energy device” policy, civil commitment policy and crisis intervention incidents policy. One policy name is redacted throughout the report — Pittsfield Police Department Policy #1.02 “Post-[redacted] and Assault Incident Procedures.”
The redactions come in stark contrast to statements made by Wynn with the release of the preliminary report.
In that release, which contained much of the same information of the final report without redactions, Wynn wrote that “we strive for transparency to the extent permitted by statute, policy, and best practices in order to build and maintain the trust of the citizens we serve and protect.”
The department did not respond Friday for a request for comment on the redaction policies used in response to the public records request for the documents.