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Pittsfield Police Advisory and Review Board to address Estrella police killing tonight

A stone building with a colonnade lit by lights sits in front of a brick churck and a street lamp
Josh Landes

Tonight’s meeting marks the first official public discussion of Miguel Estrella’s death at the hands of a Pittsfield police officer after the city council avoided the topic at its first meeting after the incident last week.

Pittsfield’s Police Advisory and Review Board is, by design, limited to merely commenting on the actions of the city’s police department.

Also on the agenda: the introduction of three new members, including Berkshire NAACP President Dennis Powell – an outspoken critic of the Pittsfield Police’s handling of the Estrella shooting, which is under investigation by the Berkshire District Attorney.

"Clearly, what they saw was a person of color, large in size which, unfortunately, the color of his skin represented a threat to the officers," Powell told WAMC. "It is inconceivable that these officers did not realize that this young man was in crisis and needed help."

During the formation of the current iteration of the Police Advisory and Review Board, Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer opposed it having actual oversight over the police department, telling WAMC she considered it “a step too far.”

Days after Estrella’s death, WAMC asked Tyer if the incident had changed her stance on the board.

“I haven't really reconsidered changing the role and responsibilities of the Police Advisory and Review Board," she said. "I do think that they will certainly have, at some point down the road, some engagement in what happened this past weekend. And so I think that for the time being, we will continue to use the board in the manner that it has been structured. And while they may not have some of the ability to, for example, discipline police officers, I think they still play a very important role in bridging that gap between police and community. And I think they're going to play that role in this situation at some point down the road.”

WAMC spoke with Tyer after demonstrators at the “Justice For Miguel” march took to the steps of city hall on April 10th to demand action from elected officials, including her.

TYER: Well, obviously, first and foremost, I share the heartbreak and extend my condolences to Miguel's mom and sister and all of the people who loved him and knew him and have beautiful fond memories of Miguel. And I understand that this incident has ignited a call for action, and I hear that, and I'm ready and committed to doing what I can, as the mayor of our city, to understand how we can be better at the work we do on behalf of our community.

WAMC: Captain Gary Traversa of the Pittsfield PD told me that you're convening a planning team of department heads that will be involved in developing a reformulation of the city's response to a person in crisis calls. Can you confirm that and expand on that? Is that happening, and what is it like?

Yes, yes. So in fact, that is happening. I have asked a number of senior leaders and department heads to convene with me to talk through some potential scenarios that would change the way our co-responder program functions, and that would include adding additional mental health clinicians, identifying which department would be best suited to supervise and assist with the co-responder program, the funding needed to undertake the next evolution of our co-responder program. So that's, that is something that we're going to be doing this week.

Now, when we hear discussion of things like more mental health clinicians working with the Pittsfield PD, that sort of ties into one of the themes of [April 10th’s] rally, where folks pointed out that there was a lot of conversation about police reform back in 2020, and it seems like there was very little done between then and now that could have prevented a situation like this, including a lot of discussion on mental health clinicians back at the time. Any response to that that sense of unfulfilled promises that the community was voicing?

Yeah, I hear that, and I understand that. There is, you know, ongoing concern about how the Pittsfield Police Department interacts and engages in community life. And I would also say that we have indeed put together some initiatives to respond to the call for more help with regard to mental health needs in our community. For example, we have added additional mental health care providers on our Pittsfield Public School staff to provide care to children and families. We actually implemented the co-responder program with only one mental health clinician, then we added two. We now know that we're going to need more than just two. I think we've used the American Rescue Plan as a way to respond to a number of community needs, and there'll be more on that very soon. We did also create the Pittsfield HUB, which is which is modeled after the Chelsea HUB, as a way to bring together mental health care providers and law enforcement and other agencies so that we are actively engaged on an individual level with people in crisis. And so, also, I think it's important to point out that Chief [Michael] Wynn was selected by Governor Baker to serve on the [Peace Officer Standards and Training] commission, and a big part of their work is developing training and certification programs for police officers. So we hear and heed the call for action. And we have done some things and yes, there's still more to do. And I would add, Josh, that missing from this community conversation, in my mind, is the health care community and the mental health care providers, because we alone as a governing organization cannot solve the magnitude of the suffering that exists in our community. And it really is going to require all of us together and a commitment from everybody for us to be better at serving people in crisis.

Do you think at this point you're capable of saying to people in the community that, another two years from now, should something else occur, that the city has done everything it possibly could to prevent what happened to Miguel Estrella from happening again?

Everyone, including me and the members of the Pittsfield Police Department and the people of our community never want what happened to Miguel to happen again. We all agree on that. And it's impossible to know what scenarios might be the police might be confronted by in the future. Our goal is to minimize, as much as possible, those interactions from occurring again.

The Police Advisory and Review Board of Pittsfield, Massachusetts meets virtually at 5 p.m.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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