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'Tragic loss': Friends, counselors mourn Miguel Estrella after fatal police shooting in Pittsfield

Pittsfield, Massachusetts, resident Miguel Estrella was shot and killed by a city police officer this weekend. People who knew Estrella say he had a history of mental illness and police should have been better equipped to deal with it.

On Friday night, Pittsfield police responded to two 911 calls about a man who had injured himself outside an apartment building, according to a statement from Berkshire District Attorney Andrea Harrington's office. People calling for help said Estrella had a history of mental illness.

When police arrived, the statement said, officers saw Estrella had cut his face. An ambulance also arrived and offered a ride to the hospital, which Estrella declined.

Soon after departing, the police got a third 911 call, saying the man was "acting crazy again" and "needs to be taken to the hospital." When police returned, according to the district attorney's statement, Estrella held a knife and moved towards the officers.

According to the DA and police, officers used Tasers, which didn't stop him. One officer then shot Estrella twice. The police attempted first aid, and Estrella was later pronounced dead at Berkshire Medical Center.

Authorities have not released the names of the responding officers, who have been placed on administrative leave.

“I send my deep condolences to the friends and family of Mr. Estrella for their loss," Harrington said in a statement. "The State Police Detective Unit is conducting a thorough investigation to determine exactly what happened that led to this tragic death."

Rachel Hanson is a social worker who knew Estrella since he was a teenager in a program for at-risk youth run by the Pittsfield Community Connection, where she was previously a case manager.

"This kid needed help. He didn’t receive it and he died. It’s a tragic, tragic loss," Hanson said. "There was a lot in his life he struggled with and that he had to overcome, and he was loved. He wanted to help people. He wanted to help himself and he wanted to help his community."

Hanson said she doesn't want to point fingers at the police.

Miguel Estrella was shot and killed by a police officer in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, on March 25, 2022.
Dashine Moore
Miguel Estrella was shot and killed by a police officer in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, on March 25, 2022.

"Even though I would like to get to the bottom of what happened that night, and for whoever to be made accountable should be made accountable for the mistakes that they did, I don’t want to demonize the police here," she said.

Jon Schnauber was director of case managers at the same program as Hanson. He remembers Miguel Estrella, whose nickname was "Miggy," fixing food at community dinners and making sure others showed up.

"He always wanted to help people," Schnauber said. "His catchphrase was, ‘I got you.’"

Schnauber said the police had lots of contact with Estrella and should have been aware of his mental illness.

"I think that there might have been a lot more opportunities to do something else rather than kill this kid," he said. "I think there's a lot of options that were not looked at or addressed. I think there are huge gaps in the protocol and policies within the [police] department when it comes to handling mental illness."

Schnauber said the police should have restrained and hospitalized Estrella under the state's Section 12 law as soon as they realized he’d been cutting himself.

"I'm a licensed social worker. If I go on a scene or someone comes to me and they have cut themselves, it's mandated — I have to section them," he said. "So I'm very confused as to why the police did not section this individual who had been self-harming."

And recently, Schnauber said, Estrella had been turning his life around.

"He had gotten a full-time job. He was accepted at McCann Technical School, where he was going to study to become an electrician," Schnauber said. "He had a long-term girlfriend recently. In fact, she was there and watched him being killed."

Dashine Moore is the cousin of Estrella's girlfriend. He's run a basketball program for kids in Pittsfield called Beat The Streets. Moore described Estrella as just coming into himself, that he did have a record of mental health issues, and that Berkshire County needs some kind of crisis unit for people like him.

"Mental health played a big part in this," he said. "I don't want to fault the police, but I just think they weren't trained right. The right people wasn't there to conduct the things the right way. And, you know, this is the outcome of that."

The Brien Center is a behavioral health provider in Berkshire County. On its website, it says since 2016, their clinicians have been "co-responder(s)" on Pittsfield police calls with a mental health component to de-escalate the situation.

The center and police department did not return requests for comment. The DA's office has not said if there was a mental health worker with police on Friday night.

Moore said after Estrella’s shooting, many people reached out to him saying their father, brother or cousin had something similar happen to them.

"We just need to kind of focus on having someone with some type of mental health [expertise], knows how to deal with it, and we can get further with this. If not, then I think we might be dealing with the same issue for a long time," he said.

Estrella's shooting comes less than three months after a police officer in Springfield shot and killed 23-year-old Orlando Taylor. As with Estrella, Taylor's family said he had a history of mental illness. After an investigation, the Hampden District Attorney determined the shooting was "reasonable and unavoidable," citing video evidence that Taylor lunged at the officer with a knife.

Corrected: March 30, 2022 at 9:02 AM EDT
The original version of this post misspelled the Brien Center.
Nancy Eve Cohen is a senior reporter focusing on Berkshire County. Earlier in her career she was NPR’s Midwest editor in Washington, D.C., managing editor of the Northeast Environmental Hub and recorded sound for TV networks on global assignments, including the war in Sarajevo and an interview with Fidel Castro.
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