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Pittsfield Police Advisory and Review Board Chair says city is denying access to internal report on March Estrella killing

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Josh Landes
/
WAMC
Signs hung by demonstrators outside of Berkshire District Attorney Andrea Harrington's office after the police shooing of Miguel Estrella on March 25th, 2022.

The Pittsfield, Massachusetts Police Advisory and Review Board says it’s been denied permission to review a report on a March incident in which a city officer shot and killed a resident experiencing a mental health crisis.

Chair Ellen Maxon opened the board’s Tuesday meeting with news that Chief Michael Wynn had shut down her effort to review his department’s internal report on the death of Miguel Estrella.

“That brings me to a topic that I explored this week, and that was getting in touch with the chief," she said. "Several people had asked if and when we would be reviewing the report generated by the police department on the shooting. To my surprise, we will not be allowed to review that even though it's post-determination. Basically, the PARB ordinance doesn't cover the type of report that was generated as a result of that. I said to the chief, it was the [Daniel] Gillis shooting that led to the PARB being reinstituted, and now we're finding out that those types of incidences that caused this to be reconstituted we’re not being allowed to review. He said, yes. And I said, I know you didn't write the ordinance. And he said, No, I didn't.”

In 2017, Daniel Gillis was shot to death by city police in the depths of a mental health emergency, just like Estrella was on March 25th. Both the internal PPD report in question and a separate criminal investigation by the Berkshire District Attorney’s Office exonerated Officer Nicholas Sondrini, who shot Estrella.

The killing traumatized the Pittsfield community, and renewed calls for police reform, alternate emergency services, and the bolstering of mental health resources.

Maxon explained how the legal architecture of the Police Advisory and Review Board made it unable to probe the latest fatal incident.

“The part of our ordinance that dictates this is, quote, to review all final investigative reports regarding citizen complaints, unquote," said Maxon. "What I was told is, there was no formal citizen complaint filed by either Miguel's family or anyone on this, and therefore, it's not the type of complaint that we review. So, because there was no formal complaint, there was no internal affairs report generated, and there's a different internal process used for high level use of force complaints, and a complaint process is triggered by a citizen filling out the form. So the options that I heard between Steve [Pagnotta], the city solicitor, and the chief were, the PARB could file a complaint, that now this is public record, so individually, one of us could make a public records request for the redacted report, but that might be subject to legal opinion. It was mentioned a couple of times that it might be time to amend the ordinance which I would say, no kidding, if we can't review the kind of complaints that we were reconstituted to be able to review. And then I was also told by the attorney that there might be an issue because there might be potential ongoing litigation that would limit our discussion.”

In the past, Maxon has defended the board against criticisms that without meaningful oversight powers, it’s a toothless entity. The city blocking access to the internal Estrella report brought forth a different tone at this meeting.

“I was highly disappointed and shocked by this revelation, and I'm very frustrated,” said the chair.

Wynn was not present at the meeting as he responded to a different shooting.

“PARB in its strictly advisory role offers no leverage in the political process to reallocate municipal funds towards a more holistic form of community safety, whose foundation has a respect and affirmation of life," said Pittsfielder Kamaar Taliaferro, who spoke up during the public comment portion of the meeting. “In the aftermath of violently losing a loved one to police policy, it's at best naïve and at worst cruel to require that a family files a citizen's complaint by walking into the police station, requesting a form from an officer, filling it out in the waiting area, submitting it to the attending officer, and then waiting for the confirmation of the attending officer that they correctly filled out. Yet this is the process by which PARB's oversight role would be activated, excepting of course if the chief of police voluntarily shared it.”

Taliaferro noted that Pittsfield’s spending on the police department is 54 times more than what the city spends on human services agencies and said that the city had created a system where police oversight is effectively impossible.

“Because of a lack of less lethal weapons and all but the most gratuitous of circumstances, no internal or external review into a police shooting in Pittsfield could come to any other conclusion than to justify an officer's split second decision," said Taliaferro. "What this effectively means, and why I'm saying this at the Police Advisory Review Board, is that by placing the review of policy-approved murder of Miguel in front of PARB, our elected officials and our public servants, civil servants, have created a system that strictly limits the perfunctory scope of this investigatory body while authorizing this investigatory body, and in this instance, it appears they didn’t, to access only the internal investigation of the department they are tasked with overseeing. This is a system of oversight that will inevitably lead to a single conclusion.”

Continuing a long theme of the body struggling to define its purpose, board member Marie Richardson said Taliaferro’s comments resonate.

“To be honest, I get off of these meetings and think, why am I here? Like, what?" she said. "To sit and listen to the chief read complaints to us and tell us what the decisions were, it's like- I don't understand what the point of that- I don't understand, I guess, what the point of our board is either, to be honest. And again, I, this is just my third meeting, and I kind of hang up and think, OK, I don't know, really, what we are doing.”

Maxon expressed her own misgivings about the board’s function.

“We have not received one citizen complaint through the PARB in our three and a half years," she said. "We've had two, maybe three people contact me, but then they don't follow through with it. So I don't know if people are still just going to the police office, the police department or whatever. But there have only been two or three people who have even contacted us regarding that. I'm not surprised by the results of either of the reports from the police department or the district attorney's office. I don't know that any of us were surprised.”

The chair suggested that her time leading the board – with four of its 10 seats vacant – might be reaching an end.

“My personal position is very seriously considering whether this is the vehicle, as Kamaar pointed out, for any real change to happen, and if it is not, how much time do I want to keep putting in on it,” said Maxon.

WAMC called Pittsfield Police for comment Thursday and was directed to send an email with the interview request. While Wynn did not respond, an assistant told WAMC that the chief said the question should be directed to the city solicitor without any further explanation.

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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