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Our Opinion: Pittsfield Police shooting produces a tragic death and hanging questions

Memorial to Estrella (copy)

A memorial to 22-year-old Miguel Estrella outside his Onota Street apartment in Pittsfield. A police officer fatally shot Estrella after police said Estrella "advanced toward" officers with a knife in his hands.

A young man is dead. A community is in shock. Important questions need answering.

On a Friday night in Pittsfield, police officers fatally shot Miguel Estrella. It was the second time police had interacted with Mr. Estrella while responding to a disturbance call from Onota Street. The first time, officers found Mr. Estrella unarmed in the street with what appeared to be self-inflicted wounds on his face. He declined medical attention, according to police, who say they determined the scene was safe and left Mr. Estrella in the care of his girlfriend. When another disturbance call came saying that Mr. Estrella “needs to be taken to the hospital,” police responded and found Mr. Estrella in the street again, this time holding a knife. His girlfriend pleaded with police to take him into custody. Mr. Estrella, still wielding the knife, then began approaching the officers, who twice used Tasers in an unsuccessful attempt to incapacitate him, after which one officer drew his gun and shot Mr. Estrella twice. The 22-year-old later died at Berkshire Medical Center.

We hope that the State Police investigation into this tragic loss of life is swift and thorough. All the facts surrounding this sad night must be brought to bear to determine exactly what occurred and what should happen in the aftermath. We will not prejudge the outcome of that probe, and we urge others to do the same to avoid unnecessarily turning the temperature up while the city is already on edge. Still, the circumstances here speak to a problem bigger than Pittsfield: All too often, Americans in the throes of mental health crisis wind up dead at the hands of police when they or their loved ones ask for help.

While we await the critical details of an investigation, there are broader questions about police response to people in extremis that we believe are not only relevant to this case but could hopefully go toward preventing such tragedy in the future.

Several high-profile police killings in recent years have spurred a vigorous conversation across the country about the role and application of policing. This has led some departments to rethink approaches to confronting people in distress. Pittsfield is one such department, employing a mental health co-responder who can help officers de-escalate situations involving people in crisis. That co-responder was not on the scene on this fateful Friday night, however, either for the first call when Mr. Estrella was unarmed or the second when he was holding a knife. Pittsfield Police Chief Michael Wynn told The Eagle that, based on an initial review, the mental health co-responder shift ended before the calls. In fact, it was a matter of minutes, according to Chief Wynn, who said the shift ended at 9:40 p.m. while the first call to Onota Street came at 9:46.

We believe this mental health co-responder program is a sensible and compassionate one that the PPD was right to adopt. If this sort of response could pose a considerable difference in how difficult scenes like this one play out, why is that response limited to a single shift? If we believe that a trained mental health professional can sometimes be more appropriate than the threat of lethal force, why is the former less ready to deploy than the latter? Like crime, people becoming distressed enough to hurt themselves or others can happen at any time. If the PPD is implementing this program — which it should — we shouldn’t have to wonder whether six minutes could have been the difference between a person in pain getting the help they need and that same person dying in the street.

As with any police shooting, every detail is vital here. Eyewitnesses gave varying accounts to a scene that played out in a public street at night. That can make getting to the truth more difficult, though no less crucial. Would Pittsfield Police putting body cameras on officers make it a bit easier to get to the truth in these tough situations? A knife is not a firearm, but it is a deadly weapon. Mr. Estrella apparently had hurt no one but himself. He approached officers, but it’s unclear exactly how. It’s also unclear exactly what the verbal exchanges were between Mr. Estrella and the officers. Any uncertainty only fans the flames of controversial events like these that stand to drive a wedge between communities and the police duty-bound to serve and protect them. Facts and accountability matter, but without body cams is there a definitive way to get to them?

Meaningfully addressing the mental health crisis in this country cannot and should not end with policing policy. Mr. Estella’s loved ones said that he had struggled with a history of abuse as a child and clinical depression in adulthood. That our society fails so many of our neighbors like Mr. Estrella goes to the paltry mental and behavioral health services available to those who need them most, especially in rural, underserved regions and vulnerable, low-income communities. Increasing those resources is a systematic way to curb outcomes involving police presence and gunshots, as well as the lifelong suffering that precedes them.

Realistically, though, that systemic shift will not be a quick development, even if we as a society pursue the most ideal models. This will not be the last time that police will confront a person in crisis, and we sadly recognize it’s not the last time it will end tragically. This particular tragedy, where a community loses a young man with his entire life in front of him, cries out for thoughtful reviews of both the mental health crisis response and continuum of force policies within the Pittsfield Police Department. It is awful that someone who needed help wound up losing his life. The only thing worse would be forgoing any opportunity to learn how to prevent such pain in the future.

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