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Families, loved ones of Pittsfielders killed by police demand action, answers from city council

Elina Estrella.
Screenshot by Josh Landes
Elina Estrella.

Family members and intimates of two men killed by Pittsfield, Massachusetts police officers in recent years made impassioned demands for reform and action from the city council at its meeting Tuesday night.

Family members and intimates of two men killed by Pittsfield, Massachusetts police officers in recent years made impassioned demands for reform and action from the city council at its meeting Tuesday night. WAMC Berkshire Bureau Chief Josh Landes has more.

After the city council failed to discuss the police killing of 22-year-old Miguel Estrella at its first gathering of April, his loved ones brought the conversation to them during the open mic portion of Tuesday’s meeting.

“My brother's death at the hands of police on March 25th has shed some light on the issues that our community is having when it comes to mental health assistance and public safety,” said Elina Estrella. “Although the Pittsfield Police Department has allegedly had a program in place that sends a mental health co-responder along with them when they are to assist the person in mental and a mental health crisis, it was not utilized in my brother's interaction with police officers when they shot him. Allegedly the co-responder had already clocked out for the day. Mental health emergencies do not run on a 9 to 5 schedule. In fact, according to a Harvard Mental Health Study, these issues are often worse after 9 p.m.”

The incident is being investigated by Berkshire District Attorney Andrea Harrington.

Estrella posed a series of questions to the council, beginning with a request for further explanation of the new collaborative model for responding to individuals in crisis the city launched in January 2022.

“In your estimation, how has the HUB model program which the Pittsfield Police Department has been leading since well before my brother's death been working so far?” she asked. “What exactly is the function of the Police Advisory Board? Since the last fatal shooting by Pittsfield police in 2017, the Police Advisory Board was put into place. Yet five years later, someone in need is met with the same outcome. If the police are given funds to adopt programs to help people in crisis and prevent more tragedies from happening, like the HUB model and like the co-responder program and the purchase of less lethal weapons, how is it that people are still dying? Where is the accountability when every interaction has the same result? When will there be funding for more reliable resources without the use of police? Residents shouldn't be afraid to contact police for assistance. So what are you as city council members going to do to assure us that a death sentence will not be an outcome of a 911 call? I will be waiting for answers not only for myself- For my community and for those members facing the real threat: People experiencing mental health crisis. Thank you.”

Daniel Gillis was the last Pittsfielder to be killed by city police. On September 1st, 2017, police responded to a 911 call on Taylor Street.

“I fully believe Danny was murdered in cold blood and if the police had body cameras, someone would be held accountable. I called the police for help. Danny wanted to die that day. And I regret making that call,” said Jacquelyn Sykes, Gillis’s girlfriend, who wore a “Justice For Daniel” shirt in council chambers. “I disarmed Danny in front of the police. I have no training. When I went out the door with that knife, there was an officer who already had his gun drawn at me. And if the officer in the front didn't come around to say not to shoot me, I probably would be dead too. Thankfully I threw the knife down and went outside. When I told the officers everything that was going on, they ended up calling in more officers. There was at least seven or eight officers there that day. So Danny came out in the back porch, not comprehending what anybody was saying to him because they were screaming at him, not trying to deescalate the situation, what they're supposed to be trained to do. He went back inside and got a knife and came outside.”

That’s when Gillis was shot and killed by Officer Christopher Colello, who was later cleared of all responsibility after an investigation by then-District Attorney David Capeless. It was the second time Colello had shot someone during a mental health crisis, and the second time Capeless exonerated him. In 2010, he shot Michael Barry three times after a 911 call to Barry’s home during an emotional breakdown. Despite being hit by three rounds, Barry – unlike Gillis – survived his encounter with Colello.

“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,” said Corey Johnson, Miguel Estrella’s older brother.

“I cannot even fathom how you can come here and leave here today not impacted knowing these fake police, these fake policy enforcers, swore an oath to protect us and serve the people, and are instead given a Glock, a badge, a suited up, low profile, kitted out, fully customized SUV, and are sent forth to terrorize and traumatize and install fear in the youth of my community,” he said. “And if you don't comply, what happens? You get murdered in front of your home, in front of your 19-year-old girlfriend, in the street like a dog.”

Johnson had his own questions and demands for the city council.

“We need a team of paid, around the clock, 24/7 personnel to respond to all crisis domestic situations and mental health situations altogether,” he said. “If guns are needed, then only should we be contacting the police. I don't know about you all- People should not be killed because they're having a bad day. As a person, ask yourself: Are you really okay with this? If you're not, then do something about it.”

The city council did not respond to the concerns raised by the families and loved ones of Gillis and Estrella in the meeting, which ended abruptly shortly after the open mic portion.

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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