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'Police should never have been there': Calls for civilian mental health team after Estrella report

Berkshire District Attorney Andrea Harrington released a 4-inch binder with a flash drive that included video and audio recordings as part of her investigation into the shooting of Miguel Estrella.
Nancy Cohen
/
NEPM
Berkshire District Attorney Andrea Harrington released a 4-inch binder with a flash drive that included video and audio recordings as part of her investigation into the shooting of Miguel Estrella.

Community activists are calling on the city of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, to create a civilian-led mental health crisis team separate from the police department.

This comes after Berkshire District Attorney Andrea Harrington on Friday announced the officer who shot and killed Miguel Estrella in March won't face criminal charges. At the time of the shooting, Estrella held a knife and was in the midst of a mental health crisis.

"Massachusetts General Law states that officers are within their lawful authority to use lethal force when they have exhausted as many attempts at de-escalation as feasible, when lethal force is necessary to prevent death or serious bodily harm, and the force is proportional to the threatened harm," Harrington said.

Activist Dana Rasso, who lives near Estrella's home, said it was evident from the DA's report that police felt they had done everything they could.

"However, to me, the fact that Miguel ended up dead is evidence that the police should never have been there to begin with," she said.

Rasso and other activists said there should have been an unarmed civilian response team trained in de-escalation.

Manos Unidas, Invest in Pittsfield, Westside Legends and other groups are calling for "peer-led" mental health response that is "fully" separate from the Pittsfield Police.

Chief Michael Wynn said on Friday the department is taking steps to hire more mental health co-responders, who work alongside officers.

'Taking somebody's life away'

In a text message, Michael Hitchcock from the group Roots & Dreams and Mustard Seeds said the DA's findings were "a spineless justification of police murder."

Rob Jefferson lives not far from Miguel Estrella's grave in Pittsfield and visits frequently. He said he was a father figure to the young man, and first met him when Estrella was a teenager attending a youth program Jefferson directed.

"We just lost a great kid," Jefferson said Monday. "I mean, man, he lit up a room when he came through."

Jefferson said he "would like to see some kind of justice" for Estrella, and that the 22-year-old was not an aggressive person.

"When he's pissed off, it's hard to get through to him. But also it ain't hard to get through to him. He just needs the right person to say some stuff to him, talk him away from it," Jefferson said. "And he calms right down."

On the night of the shooting, Jefferson said he called the crisis hotline requesting they tell the police that Estrella had mental health issues.

Jefferson said he isn't surprised by the DA's findings about the police.

"They get their way. You get a slap on the wrist sometimes. And in a lot of cases, you know, usually taking somebody's life away from a family and loved ones," he said. "It's been like that forever."

Jefferson wants police to have better training and a mental health worker on duty 24/7.

Nancy Eve Cohen is a senior reporter focusing on Berkshire County. Previously she served as the editor of the Northeast Environmental Hub, a collaborative of public radio stations. Earlier in her career she was the Midwest editor for NPR in Washington, D.C. Before working in radio, she recorded sound as part of a camera crew for network television news, with assignments in Russia, Guatemala, Mexico, Cuba and in Sarajevo during the war in 1992.
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