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Pittsfield Police Advisory and Review Board hears pointed criticism during Estrella shooting listening session

The entrance to the Pittsfield Police Department.
Josh Landes
The entrance to the Pittsfield Police Department.

The Pittsfield, Massachusetts Police Advisory and Review Board held a listening session last night about the March 25th fatal police shooting of a 22-year-old city man.

The meeting marked the first official public discussion of Miguel Estrella’s death at the hands of the Pittsfield Police Department following a 911 call last month. The young man has been remembered by friends, family, and co-workers as a beloved community member dedicated to Pittsfield. Multiple public demonstrations have called for answers about the shooting and justice for Estrella in the weeks following.

The incident is being investigated by the Berkshire District Attorney.

“First, the PARB would like to express our sympathy for Miguel's family and friends. This has to be a very emotional and hard time for all connected to him, and also for the whole Pittsfield community," said Chair Ellen Maxon. “Second, this session is a listening session for the board and [Chief Michael Wynn]. This is a chance for the board and the chief to hear directly from the public. The board has no more information than is available to the general public, and the chief cannot comment on an open and active investigation. But we certainly can listen.”

The two officers involved in the incident have not been identified, and are on administrative leave while DA Andrea Harrington completes an investigation that could take months.

Maxon admitted it is unclear “what role, if any, [the] board will play in reviewing the investigation,” and noted that the body is currently training three new members.

“However, we really do want to hear from the community in hopes of providing a bridge between the police department and Pittsfield citizens," she continued. "The board will memorialize in writing your comments tonight and do two things with those comments. First, we will send a written copy to the chief, the mayor, and the city council. In addition, at our next meeting in May, there will be an agenda item that invites the board to engage in discussion based on your comments. PARB will attempt to figure out what help helpful steps we might be able to take.”

With that, the board opened the floor to community members.

“Looking over the minutes from 2020 and 2021, I see a consistent question was asked by members of this board: what is its goal? And how do you serve a function that's useful for people in our community? I will leave that up to y'all to answer,” said Berkshire County NAACP member Kamaar Taliaferro. “I would just like to recognize that this body was formed after another shooting of a resident in Pittsfield, Daniel Gillis, and there were members who were on this board who had said, we are preventative, we are not reactionary. So in the interim, it's been what, five years now? What concrete steps has this body taken, has the Pittsfield Police Department taken, in order for us to not have to react to the killing of our neighbors?”

As it did during the intense debate around police spending in 2020, discussion turned to where Pittsfield’s resources are best spent to keep the community safe.

“What I want to propose discussion of for this body is to divest money from the police budget and invest it in programs in particular that address mental health crises that are separate from the police department and are not dispatched with police officers," said Dana Rasso, who told the board that she lives in the West Side neighborhood, about five blocks from where Estrella was shot to death by police.

She said pouring money into the police department’s ever-expanding budget has failed to make Pittsfield safer, using a controversial gunshot detection technology adopted in 2017 as an example.

“Things like ShotSpotter are really just a money grab on behalf of corporations whose whole lifeblood is making money off of municipal budgets," said Rasso. "To me. ShotSpotter is the perfect example of this, because it's extraordinarily expensive, it has no validation in terms of its ability to actually help the police solve crimes or save people's lives. It's also surveillance of our community, and that is something we don't need. And we certainly don't need more of that in the form of things like body worn cameras and other sorts of devices that are being proposed that are meant to somehow make the police behave better. And they're not going to.”

Michael Hitchcock told the board it must deeply consider how its makeup influences its ability to carry out its stated mission.

“You are not representative of the community. There are now thousands of Latinos throughout the county and many live and work in Pittsfield. There are people who are very impoverished, and this board is more towards the middle class side than the impoverished side," he said. "So there's a little bit of a communication problem because your board is meant to be a conduit for community voices, but community voices are less likely to be able to talk to people who don't speak their language, who don't look like them, and who have much more affluence than they do.”

Hitchcock said the Estrella killing underscores the police department’s failed efforts to deescalate emergency situations like the mental health call that first summoned them to 279 Onota Street that night.

“What we need is a program that is completely independent from the police, and completely unarmed, and is professional, so that their deep, day-to-day training is in complete, nonviolent respect for the life of mentally ill citizens. And we need to take some of the police budget away to create that. And it's not a pie in the sky utopianism I'm offering," said Hitchcock. "It’s something that has worked in Denver, the Pioneer Valley, and a lot of other American cities that are similar to ours.”

You can hear the full Pittsfield Police Advisory and Review Board listening session here:

PARB Estrella Listening Session 4-19-22.mp3

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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