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Sunday’s “Change for Miguel” rally to renew calls for police reform, investment in mental health after March police killing of Pittsfielder

Corey Johnson, brother of Miguel Estrella, holds a megaphone on the steps of Pittsfield city hall.
Josh Landes
The Estrella family, joined by supporters, on the steps of Pittsfield, Massachusetts city hall in April 2022.

A march and rally Sunday in Pittsfield, Massachusetts will mark six months since the police killing of Miguel Estrella.

Estrella’s shooting in the depths of a mental health crisis on March 25th devastated Pittsfield’s tight-knit West Side community and has inspired calls for the city to change its approach to policing in the months since.

In April, the Estrella family, backed by supporters, led a “Justice for Miguel” demonstration that wound around downtown Pittsfield before ending with remarks in Park Square. His mother Marisol, interpreted by Anaelisa Jacobsen of the Manos Unidas Multicultural Educational Cooperative, made a plea to city leaders.

“The question is, what happened to Miguel on the 25th of March?” she asked. “I want an answer. He asked for help and he didn't get help. I want an answer. He was a youth like, so many of our youth, who just asked for help. He was in crisis, and instead he was met with violence. I'm one of so many mothers who's been through this, and we're not going to do this again. Justice for Miguel!”

Estrella’s sister Elina called on the city council to respond at its April 26th meeting.

“When will there be funding for more reliable resources without the use of police?” asked Estrella. “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?”

At the end of the month, an internal Pittsfield Police finding cleared nine-year department veteran Officer Nicholas Sondrini of any wrongdoing when he shot Estrella to death.

In August, District Attorney Andrea Harrington released her office’s much-anticipated report on the State Police investigation into the killing.

“The third-party eyewitness reports demonstrate that the officers provided numerous verbal warnings, created distance, and called additional resources to help resolve the incident in attempt to de-escalate," said the DA. "The Taser evidence shows they attempted less lethal force. The video shows Mr. Estrella’s movement toward the officers and the knife found on the scene is a proportional threat to officer safety. These elements are well established in law, and the Berkshire district attorney's office will not proceed with any criminal charges against the officer. These are sad and tragic circumstances, but they are not criminal in nature.”

With no legal recourse and little faith in the criminal legal system, organizers say Sunday’s rally will refocus the efforts of those calling for change.

“The coalition of organizations, ‘Change for Miguel,’ is moving forward from the initial conversations we had about ‘Justice for Miguel,’ and trying to bring our community into conversation on the six-month anniversary of his killing the day before what would have been his 23rd birthday to be in conversation about what it is that our city needs,” said Meg Bossong of Invest in Pittsfield, one of the activists involved in Sunday’s event. “One of the things that we are advocating for is for Pittsfield to adopt one of the many successful models for peer-led mental health crisis support that is fully separate from the police department- So, not a co-responder model. We understand that the city continues to have an interest in investing in co-responder models. But there are many successful models both in the commonwealth in places like Amherst or Northampton or Cambridge, as well as Durham, North Carolina, Eugene, Oregon, city models of peer mental health support that are led by people who themselves have experienced mental health challenges that are fully separate from a law enforcement response and better tapped into creating ongoing communities of care for people and better tapped into preventative resources so that we can reach residents, we can reach our neighbors before they have significant mental health crises that put them at risk to themselves or to other people.”

Echoing other activists and community members since March, Bossong says there’s been a frustrating lack of dialogue between city leaders and community members most impacted by policing.

“The dialogue seems to be happening between councilors and the mayor's office and service providers and the police department, not those in the community who have been in conversation about this for a long time, who are familiar with all of the models, who keep presenting all of the successful models to the city of Pittsfield, and saying listen, there are lots of models that we could look at, even as close as our neighbors in the valley just over the mountain,” Bossong told WAMC. “So we need those officials to be attending community-led, community facilitated meetings, and to make real concrete ongoing investments of the city's money for mental health support, for youth jobs, for mentorship programs, for community-based prevention programming, for affordable housing. The city cannot continue to outsource this to contract or grant-based work by a single organization.”

Bossong gave Ward 1 city councilor Kenny Warren credit for bringing forward a petition on the creation of an alternative emergency services model before civic leaders — a concept that Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer said she supports in theory in an August WAMC interview.

“I do think there's some value in what he's asking for, and I would encourage the city council to put together a proposal with more specificity so that we can provide funding to accomplish the goal that they're trying to achieve,” said Tyer. “So, I'm open to the idea of what they're trying to do, but I need more specificity, and I'm open to funding it if they can provide me with more specifics.”

In that same conversation, Tyer told WAMC that she acknowledges the city’s role in responding to Estrella’s death.

“I still feel that it was an extraordinarily tragic moment in the lives of many people in this community, and the friends and the family of Miguel continue to have broken hearts,” said the mayor. “And we as a community- Miguel represents people who struggle in our community with mental health crisis, with mental health issues. And it is a complicated, it’s a complicated issue. We as a city, as a governing body, have an obligation to be part of the solution. And that's what we're going to be aiming for.”

The city’s handling of Estrella’s death has been uneven at best. In the city council’s first meeting after the killing, the body never mentioned the incident, which council president Peter Marchetti told WAMC he regretted.

“Yeah, we probably should have done something,” he said. “Again, you know, hindsight is 20/20. So yeah, it could have- I easily could have said, and let's keep the family in our thoughts and prayers.”

In September, members of the city’s maligned Police Advisory and Review Board held a mass resignation over frustration that they would not be able to review the internal police report on Estrella’s death. Former chair Ellen Maxon acknowledged to WAMC that long-simmering frustrations over the board’s lack of power contributed to the move.

“It's something that some of us have considered for a while, and this last event just was the final straw,” she said.

Bossong says the message of Sunday’s rally is that the Pittsfield community can’t rely on official channels to make change.

“What we're hoping people take away is that we don't have the structures in place right now that we need, that Miguel's death was fully preventable,” she told WAMC. “It was fully preventable in the moments before it happened, but it was really fully preventable in the hours and days and weeks and months and years before it happened. The better we understand that we need to make shifts in how we think about, for example, mental health support from being managing people from crisis to crisis to actually being something that we can foster mental well-being and mental health instead of preventing mental health crises. That's something that we need to connect with. We need to connect with the fact that policing steals our imagination about what's possible in our city. When we start from a place that only the police can respond to things, we forget that actually, all of us, our neighbors, ourselves, our families, all of us are engaged in caring for each other and trying to keep each other healthy and safe and well and connected, and actually have a lot more expertise and a lot more practice in doing that than law enforcement does, and that we can draw on that wisdom to create structures that we need, and then resource those structures.”

The “Change for Miguel” rally begins at Persip Park in downtown Pittsfield at noon Sunday and will proceed down North Street to Park Square.

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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