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Citing inadequate mental health services, reliance on police, Berkshire NAACP says “change cannot wait” in Pittsfield

Facebook: NAACP-Berkshire County Branch

The Berkshire County Chapter of the NAACP says inaction from Pittsfield, Massachusetts officials is endangering the lives of people of color in the community.

The call to action from the Berkshire NAACP comes as the Berkshire County DA continues investigating the March 25th fatal police shooting of 22-year-old city man Miguel Estrella. The Pittsfield Police Department has already cleared Officer Nicholas Sondrini – who fatally shot Estrella during a 911 call response – in a preliminary report from its Force Investigation Team.

Official communications have diverged over whether Estrella was having a mental health crisis during the incident, and witnesses have disputed the police department’s account.

NAACP Chapter President Dennis Powell previously told WAMC that internalized racism contributed to the situation. Now, he says Pittsfield’s elected officials have helped create the environment that led to Estrella’s death by solely relying on the police to respond to mental health emergencies.

“We need to do something," said Powell. "We need to really think seriously about how we support people with mental illness, and we need to come up with something that can provide equity and justice for people having to deal with this so that we can hopefully prevent, we have more of an opportunity to do deescalate and save people's lives, as opposed to losing people who are, unfortunately, going through a mental illness phase.”

Powell says the chapter’s political action committee drew inspiration from other Massachusetts communities like Northampton, Amherst, Lynn, and Boston.

“They were really, had just recently established some type of independent alternative to law enforcement officers," he told WAMC. "And then they looked further and came up with this program that has been working in Oregon for some, over 30 years, I guess. So we really want to come together and see if, through some good research and data, if we couldn't come up with a program in our community that could better respond to people in mental crisis other than having to call the police.”

That Oregonian program is CAHOOTS, or Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets. In that program, a mental health service in Eugene – White Bird Clinic – uses city vehicles to respond to mental health emergencies. Funded by the city’s police department, it offers 24-hour response coverage.

The NAACP letter to the mayor, the city council, and statehouse delegation has three specific demands. The first is to support the Alternative for Community Emergency Services or ACES bill currently before the Massachusetts legislature, which would “create alternatives for community emergency law enforcement services.” The second is for the city to promise that any state funding it secures for crisis response goes to a group independent of the police department, preferably a “peer and practitioner-led, mobile crisis unit.”

Powell stresses that the kind of work that would go into creating new ways of responding to emergencies needs consistent funding.

“Because it needs to be something that is going to be sustainable," he said. "It's going to take trial and error to get something to work and we just want to make sure that the funding is there to give it a chance to work.”

The final request is for the city to commit to assessing the Pittsfield Police Department’s functions from the perspective of “those with lived experience that are representative of the diversity of Pittsfield,” with the end goal of finding new non-violent crisis response strategies to be carried out by a new city department.

“Some of the models that they looked at, they use community people that they train to be part of this response team who had experienced issues themselves," said Powell. "So, just looking for alternative ways to make this happen, to sort of take it out of the hands of the police, and let them do the work that they're designed to do, which is not really trying to really deal with mental health issues.”

Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer did not respond to a request for comment on this story.

You can read the full Berkshire NAACP Chapter letter here:

The NAACP, Berkshire County Branch believes that change cannot wait. Our Communities of Color continue to experience trauma as a result of law-enforcement officers' (LEO) actions and the inaction of our elected leaders. 

Pittsfield lacks adequate, appropriate, racially and culturally responsive mental health services. And elected officials and providers have stated they recognize these gaps in care. Currently, access to crisis counseling and response is limited to an unknown crisis 1-800 number or the over-utilized emergency room at Berkshire Medical Center.

It is irresponsible and dangerous to allow these circumstances to persist.

The City of Pittsfield, its city council, state delegation, and Mayor have relied solely on the Pittsfield Police Department as the only answer to crisis response and public safety.

But they don’t need to be. There are many alternative-to-LEO organizations responding to non-violent emergency calls every day in this country.

One of the best examples is in Eugene, Oregon with the CAHOOTS, standing for Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets. They are a mobile crisis intervention program staffed by White Bird Clinic personnel using City of Eugene vehicles. CAHOOTS provides support for EPD personnel by taking on many of the social service type calls for service, including crisis counseling. CAHOOTS personnel often provide initial contact and transport for people who are intoxicated, mentally ill, or disoriented, as well as transport for necessary non-emergency medical care. The CAHOOTS have been providing service for over thirty years.

Even closer to home municipalities like Boston and Lynn and our neighbors in Northampton and Amherst are heeding the call for equity by recently establishing independent, and alternative-to-LEO, response units, and new city departments.

Mobile crisis response teams serve our neighbors. Our current co-responder program in Pittsfield does not.

The NAACP, Berkshire County Branch asks that the elected officials of Pittsfield, including the City Council, State delegation, and Mayor;

1) support the ACES Bill (H. 2519)

2) ensure any state funding earmarked for crisis-response in Pittsfield is devoted to an independent (from the Pittsfield Police Department), peer and practitioner-led, mobile crisis unit

3) commit to a process of assessing current PPD functions, undertaken by those with lived experience that are representative of the diversity of Pittsfield; that said advisory commission will be tasked with researching non-violent crisis response best practices and models; and, authorized to recommend for adoption a new city department appropriate to the circumstances of Pittsfield.

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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