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As his department prepares its final report on Estrella killing, Pittsfield Police Chief discusses use of force policy, “person in crisis” definition

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Pittsfield Police Department
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Pittsfield, Massachusetts Police Chief Michael Wynn.

The Pittsfield, Massachusetts police department is expected to release its final internal report on the March 25th killing of 22-year-old city man Miguel Estrella on Friday. The Force Investigation Team assembled by Chief Michael Wynn to investigate the incident released a preliminary report last month that said Officer Nicholas Sondrini had acted within use of force guidelines when he shot and killed Estrella during a 911 call.

One of the most significant developments in the report was the declaration that Estrella did not qualify for the “person in crisis” designation that would have required his transport to hospital for evaluation known as a Section 12. Witnesses to the incident dispute the official narrative, and Estrella’s loved ones and social workers have told WAMC that he had both a history of mental illness and was having a manic episode the night he died. An initial statement from the Berkshire District Attorney, who is now investigating the incident, concurred.

Wynn says he feels that his department’s Force Investigation Team has worked as intended. He spoke with WAMC about the FIT’s preliminary report, his department’s use of force policies, and his reaction to new movement from city officials to outfit his officers with body cams, which he has opposed to date.

WYNN: I think that given, you know, the history in the commonwealth and the climate, body cameras are inevitable. But if we're going to do it, I think we need to do it right. There's a couple of easy solutions to the legal questions we have. There's some lingering questions about the expense of retrieving and producing public records, but I think that's a local issue. And actually, you know, if I can get our local legislators and the council to assist with getting some movement from the state legislature, this could be a good thing for everybody.

WAMC: Now, another topic I wanted to ask you about was use of force policies for your department. You know, we spoke a couple of years ago, back in June 2020, just after the George Floyd murder, about use of force policies, and at the time you talked about that you were reviewing it, your own department's policy, to make sure, and I'm quoting here, it was “consistent with federal standards and best practices.” Can you walk us through over the last couple of years, what exactly has come out of that process?

We've actually done two since then. One was the one we undertook voluntarily in response to the national movements at the time, and we really were focusing on duty to intervene or duty to intercede, which we already had case law on in the commonwealth, but it wasn't specifically spelled out in the policy. And then subsequently, we undertook another review last year after the commonwealth issued the use of force regulations, just to make sure that our language and our policy was consistent with now the Massachusetts use of force regulations and not just national standards.

So at this point, do you feel like those reviews have led to a use of force policy that you feel comfortable with as of spring 2022?

Yes.

Now, I want to ask you a few questions about the FIT. For folks who don't really know exactly what goes into the FIT, what exactly is that body within the department? What's it comprised of? What does that- Just walk us through the process there.

Sure. I can't get into all of the details, because some of them impact the actual investigative process. But the Force Investigation Team is not a permanent body within the department. It's an investigation team that we pull together in the immediate aftermath of a high level, serious use of force or assault incident, whether that's by an officer on a resident or by a resident on an officer. The team is comprised of a commander who was not the involved officers’ commander, experienced investigator from the detective bureau or the drug unit, a use of force instructor from our training unit, who is, preferably has a certification in the use of force option used. And the fourth member of the force investigation team is a member of the involved officers union. And they are tasked by me with examining the evidence available for the use of force to determine as the policy states that the use of force was in compliance with department policy and current training guidelines. And based on last year's regulations, this team also had to evaluate the uses of force in light on the new commonwealth regulations.

One component that I found interesting was about this concept of “person in crisis.” Can you sort of unpack what exactly constitutes a “person in crisis”?

So, we're really looking at two different aspects. We're looking at a person in crisis, who could be anybody who is experiencing a mental health episode, substance abuse episode, or some other type of episode that the particular policy that was impacted – in this case was our policy on civil commitments, or Section 12s – and that policy specifically references substantial risk of physical harm to the person as shown by his or her threats or attempts to commit suicide or cause other serious bodily harm to him or herself, a substantial risk of physical harm to other persons as shown by homicidal or other violent behavior, or evidence that others are in reasonable fear of violent behavior and serious physical harm, and when the person's judgment is so effected that there is substantial risk that the person cannot protect him or herself from physical impairment or injury, and there was no reasonable provision for protection available in the community.

And what is that definition from?

That's from our civil commitments policy.

I think that part of the report was the part that most stuck out to me, this idea that- The different descriptions of Mr. Estrella versus the declaration that he did not qualify for that definition. That's where I find myself confused as someone who has been following the official narratives since the beginning.

I can understand that, but again, I can't comment on an ongoing investigation.

With the DA conducting an independent investigation, what happens if there's a different finding in that investigation from the internal FIT findings?

I have no idea. It's never happened in my experience before.

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