PITTSFIELD — “We need a hard look,” one councilor said. “There is no excuse for the senseless killing of an innocent man,” added another.
In the wake of an internal report into the March 25 fatal police shooting of Miguel Estrella, Pittsfield city councilors are speaking out. Like Estrella’s family and friends, they too await the findings of the Berkshire District Attorney’s office, which is conducting a criminal probe.
When asked for their views by The Eagle, several councilors called for more discussion about implementing use of body-worn cameras by police, as well as bolstering mental health services in the city.
Calling Estrella’s death incredibly tragic, Ward 3 Councilor Kevin Sherman said his “heart breaks for [Estrella’s] family, friends, and co-workers who love and care for him.”
“As a community, we’ll need to recognize the factors that went into this tragedy as well as others. What appears evident is that our mental health services are not to scale given the amount of diagnosis and addictions in Pittsfield and Berkshire County,” Sherman said in an email. “This needs to be addressed on a local, state, and federal level. We need a hard look at our socio-economic impact on these mental conditions and how to support all community members proactively.”
Sherman called for discussion about the “value” and “challenges” of body-worn cameras for Pittsfield police officers.
Family of Estrella attended last week’s City Council meeting, when a citizen’s petition calling for body-worn cameras was delivered. Corey Johnson took direct aim at the council during the April 26 public comment period.
“This City Council has been behaving like a filthy rich, wine drunk parent funding a negligent, seemingly incompetent bully which is the Pittsfield Police Department,” Johnson said.
Ward 1 Councilor Kenneth Warren said that as a councilor, he has nothing to do with sorting through what actually happened that night, but he can “initiate and participate in potential solutions” to the many issues raised by the fatal police shooting.
Pittsfield police released a four-page preliminary report the day after that City Council meeting. The report concluded that Officer Nicholas Sondrini complied “with all relevant department policies, training guidelines, statutory requirements, and use of force guidelines” when he shot Estrella, whom police said was perceived as a “deadly threat” as he came at an officer “at a fast pace” with a raised knife.
Sondrini fired twice into Estrella’s chest after police say efforts to stop him with less-lethal means failed, and after the officers backed 120 feet away from Estrella, into Onota Street traffic.
Ward 5 Councilor Patrick Kavey said Estrella’s death, as a result of officers following established protocols, shows that those protocols need changing.
“Even if they were in compliance, there is no excuse for the senseless killing of an innocent man,” Kavey said. “I look forward to hearing from our Chief during our budget hearings on how his department will be updating said policies, so nothing like this happens in our community ever again. I also look forward to hearing how they will update their training guidelines to ensure that their officers are properly equipped to de-escalate a situation without the use of extreme force.”
The police department’s preliminary report said Estrella did not meet the criteria of a “person in crisis” during the first of two calls to his Onota Street apartment building the evening of March 25. The department did not believe it had grounds to seek an involuntary commitment of Estrella after the initial 911 call for help.
The day after the fatal shooting, the Berkshire District Attorney’s office said that 911 callers had “alerted dispatch that Estrella had a history of mental illness, was cutting himself and was currently located outside of the apartment building” on Onota Street. Police said in the force report released this week that Estrella was not “engaging in any self-harming behavior” when officers responded to the initial call for help, and that an injury he had was sustained earlier in the day.
Kavey and At-Large Councilor Earl Persip III called for more mental health professions to be on hand to respond to mental health calls, either within the police department, or potentially housed within a newly created department.
A co-responder had ended a work shift just minutes before the first of two police responses to Estrella’s address. Chief Michael Wynn has said that given the circumstances of the second call, it is uncertain whether a mental health co-responder could have arrived in time to help.
Still, Persip said the council may need to act to ensure help is available.
“We hold the purse strings,” he said, calling for there to be a mental health professional available to respond 24/7.
Persip said he wanted to wait for the DA’s office to complete its “independent” investigation before commenting on the shooting itself, saying he did not know whether the details contained in this week’s force report were accurate. He noted that the report represents the police department investigating itself.
“I think it’s important for us to move forward and concentrate on getting people the help they actually need when they have mental illness or a mental episode,” Persip said.
At-Large Councilor Pete White said more “community input” on police body-worn and dash cameras is needed. More resources ought to be committed, he said, to local mental health agencies that receive state funding to work in the area of crisis intervention.
“I feel sorry for everyone involved,” he said in an email. “I offered my condolences to Miguel Estrella’s loved ones after our council meeting Tuesday night. I want to see the report from the District Attorney’s Office when it is finished. We need respectful community discussions to move forward.”
Sherman, the Ward 3 councilor, said steps need to be taken to to protect citizens as well as public safety officers. “To prevent all parties from being in this situation to begin with,” he said.
“It’s a sobering tragedy on all levels that no one woke up on March 25 expecting or planning,” he added. “We owe it to all involved to work together to find answers as one community.”