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Berkshire DA: No criminal charges against officer who fatally shot Miguel Estrella

Berkshire District Attorney Andrea Harrington announced Friday afternoon that no criminal charges will be filed against the Pittsfield, Massachusetts, police officer who fatally shot 22-year-old Miguel Estrella in March.

Harrington released evidence showing Estrella was in the midst of a mental health crisis, and advanced on officers with a knife. She said a gunshot residue analysis showed Estrella was within 7 feet of Officer Nicholas Sondrini when the officer fired two shots.

Harrington said Sondrini acted in self-defense.

"The facts discovered during the course of this investigation do not establish probable cause to charge the officer, nor would the commonwealth be able to meet its burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt required for a criminal prosecution," Harrington said at a news conference.

Before Sondrini fired the fatal shots, Harrington said, the officers begged Estrella to put the knife down, called for additional assistance, and tried to use stun guns — but they did not work.

Harrington said Christopher Coffey, another police officer on the scene, “described Estrella’s posture as very aggressive. Both officers described him as having a boxing stance, hands up in fists, palms down with the handle of the knife in his hand and the blade of the knife pointing down.”

Harrington said Sondrini said that Estrella was yelling and advancing.

“Not fast, by zigzagging between him and Coffey. Estrella would walk, then stop and start yelling, kind of like psyching himself up, then appear to stab himself in the thigh. Then Miguel moved toward the officers again,” Harrington said as she presented her findings.

After Sondrini shot Estrella, he administered first aid using supplies he kept in a pouch on his belt, the district attorney said.

“He put a clotting agent on the visible gunshot wound and applied pressure,” Harrington said.

When EMS arrived, the emergency providers saw that Estrella was unresponsive, but “that he had some chest movement, suggesting he was breathing,” Harrington said.

The emergency medical workers moved him onto a stretcher, but while he was being loaded into the ambulance, Estrella stopped breathing. Emergency surgery was performed later at the hospital, according to the DA’s report, but Miguel Estrella died of his wounds at about 11:20 p.m.

"These are sad and tragic circumstances, but they are not criminal in nature," Harrington said. "Mr. Estrella and his family have suffered an injustice. Many systems failed Miguel Estrella."

Harrington said Estrella did not receive the mental health services he needed. She said that was the result of a systemic government failure to invest in health care.

Speaking at the news conference, Estrella's sister, Elina Estrella, asked why a mental health professional, who works with the police, was not on the scene to treat her brother.

“How can calls for help during a mental health crisis end up in the person needing help getting shot and killed?” she asked. “The calls went out [to 911] not because Miguel was threatening anyone else or because others were scared for their own safety, but because others were concerned that Miguel was hurting himself. Clearly this was a mental health crisis.”

Elina Estrella said her brother died because of how society deals with mental health crises.

Pittsfield Police Chief Michael Wynn previously confirmed that on the night of Estrella's shooting, a co-responder had ended her shift "several minutes before that call was received."

The co-responder, who works with Pittsfield police, is employed by the Brien Center. Wynn said Friday the police department is taking steps to hire mental health professionals directly.

“I have moved forward with job descriptions within the police department for a licensed social worker and multiple co-responders — depending on what the salary range shakes out,” he said.

Wynn said he'd like to hire 18 co-responders, but doesn't expect to have that much funding. He said he still needs City Council approval to create those jobs.

In addition, Wynn said his department is in the process of signing paperwork to evaluate police body cameras.

“We'll be working on an interim policy for the testing and evaluation process,” he said. “And then once we get through testing and evaluation, we'll go to full implementation.”

Wynn said he hopes to start testing the body cameras in a month or so, but the suppliers are “estimating it might take us months to get the units.”

As Elina Estrella finished speaking Friday, she described her brother as “a kind, big hearted, complicated son, brother, and more so to many of us.”

She said his death didn’t affect just his family and friends.

“He had stumbles,” she said. “But he tried to stay positive. Miguel was becoming the change he wanted to see in his community.”

Sam Hudzik contributed to this report.

Updated: August 5, 2022 at 11:01 PM EDT
This story has been updated to include additional quotations and context.
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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