Sunday's 'Change for Miguel' rally to renew calls for police reform and investment in mental health after the March police killing of Pittsfielder

Sunday’s ‘Change for Miguel’ rally to renew calls for police reform and investment in mental health after the March police killing of Pittsfielder

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

In April, the Estrella family, backed by supporters, led a “Justice for Miguel” protest that ran through downtown Pittsfield before ending with remarks in Park Square. His mother Marisol, played by Anaelisa Jacobsen of the Multicultural Educational Cooperative Manos Unidas, appealed to the city’s leaders.

“The question is, what happened to Miguel on March 25?” she asked. ” I want a response. He asked for help and he got none. I want a response. He was a young man like many of our young people, who was simply asking for help. He was in crisis, and instead he was met with violence. I am one of many mothers who have been through this, and we are not going to do it again. Justice for Miguel!

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

“When will there be funding for more reliable non-police resources?” Estrella asked. “Residents should not be afraid to contact the police for help. So what are you, as members of the city council, going to do to make sure that a death sentence will not be the result of a 911 call? »

At the end of the month, an internal Pittsfield police discovery cleared nine-year veteran department officer Nicholas Sondrini of any wrongdoing when he shot Estrella.

In August, District Attorney Andrea Harrington released her office’s highly anticipated report into the state police investigation into the murder.

“Third-party eyewitness reports demonstrate that officers provided numerous verbal warnings, created distance and called in additional resources to help resolve the incident in an attempt to de-escalate,” the DA said. “Taser evidence shows they attempted less lethal force. Video shows Mr. Estrella’s movement towards officers and the knife found at the scene is a commensurate threat to officers’ safety. These elements are well established by the law and the Berkshire District Attorney’s Office will not pursue 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 justice 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 on ‘Justice for Miguel’, and trying to bring our community into the conversation on the sixth anniversary of his murder the day before what would be his 23rd birthday to discuss what our city needs,” said Meg Bossong of Invest in Pittsfield, one of the activists involved in Sunday’s event. One of the things we advocate for is that Pittsfield adopt one of many successful models of peer-led mental health crisis support that is entirely separate from the police department – ​​So not a co-responder model. 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 in Durham, Carolina North, Eugene, Ore gon, city models of peer mental health support that are led by people who have experienced mental health issues themselves. that are entirely separate from a police response and best leveraged to create communities of continued care for people and best leveraged in 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 others.

Echoing other activists and community members since March, Bossong says there has been a frustrating lack of dialogue between city leaders and community members most affected by the police.

“The dialogue seems to be between the councilors and the town hall and the service providers and the police department, not those in the community who have been talking about it for a long time, who know all the models, who keep presenting all the successful models of the city of Pittsfield, and saying listen, there are a lot of patterns we could look at, even as close as our neighbors in the valley just above the mountain,” Bossong told WAMC. “So we need these officials to attend community-led, community-facilitated meetings, and make real, concrete, ongoing investments of city money for mental health support, for jobs for youth. , for mentoring programs, for community prevention programs, for affordable prices. lodging. The city cannot continue to outsource this to contracts or grant-based work by one organization.

Bossong credited Ward 1 Councilman Kenny Warren with presenting a petition about creating an alternative model of emergency services to city leaders — a concept that Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer, said she was in theory supporting in a WAMC interview in August.

“I think what he’s asking for has some value, and I would encourage the city council to come up with a more specific proposal so we can provide funding to achieve the goal they’re trying to achieve,” said Tyer. “So I’m open to what they’re trying to do, but I need more specifics, and I’m open to funding it if they can provide me with more details.”

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

“I still think this was an extraordinarily tragic time in the lives of many people in this community, and Miguel’s friends and family continue to be heartbroken,” the mayor said. “And we, as a community, Miguel represent people who are struggling in our community with a mental health crisis, with mental health issues. And it’s complicated, it’s a complicated question. As a city, as a governing body, we have an obligation to be part of the solution. And that’s what we’re aiming for. »

The city’s handling of Estrella’s death has been spotty at best. At the city council’s first meeting after the murder, the body never mentioned the incident, which council chairman Peter Marchetti told WAMC he regretted.

“Yeah, we probably should have done something,” he said. “Again, you know, hindsight is 20/20. So yes, it could have – I could easily 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 resigned en masse, frustrated at not being able to review the internal police report into Estrella’s death. Former president Ellen Maxon admitted to WAMC that long-standing frustrations over the board’s lack of power contributed to the decision.

“It’s something some of us have contemplated for a while, and this latest event was just the final straw,” she said.

Bossong says the message from Sunday’s rally is that the Pittsfield community cannot rely on official channels to bring about change.

“What we hope people will take away is that we don’t currently have the structures in place that we need, that Miguel’s death was entirely preventable,” she told WAMC. “It was entirely avoidable in the moments leading up to it, but it really was entirely avoidable in the hours, days, weeks, months and years leading up to it. The better we understand that we need to change our way of thinking, for example, mental health support from managing people in crisis to something that we can actually promote mental wellbeing and mental health instead of preventing mental health crises. is something we need to connect with. We need to realize that police departments steal our imaginations about what is possible in our city. When we start from a place where only the police can respond, we forget that in fact, all of us, our neighbors, ourselves, our families, we’re all committed to taking care of each other and trying to keep ourselves healthy and safe and well and connected, and actually have a lot more expertise and much more s of practice in this area than law enforcement, and that we can leverage that wisdom to create the structures we need, and then provision those structures.

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

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