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Police Advisory Committee Frustrated It Can't Review Estrella Report
By Brittany Polito, iBerkshires Staff
05:21AM / Wednesday, August 17, 2022
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PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Despite the Police Advisory Review Board being reconstituted after the police killing of Daniel Gillis in 2017, the panel is not permitted to cover the report on the police killing of Miguel Estrella.

This has left PARB frustrated and questioning its purpose once again.

"I was highly disappointed and shocked by this revelation," Chair Ellen Maxon said. "And very frustrated."

Since the panel's last meeting in May, Maxon asked Police Chief Michael Wynn if members would be able to review the report generated by the Police Department on the fatal police shooting of Miguel Estrella on March 25 and he reported that it is not in PARB's ordinance.

The ordinance states that the board is to "review all final investigative reports regarding citizen complaints," making it not able to cover the report generated from the shooting.

"What I was told is there was no formal citizen complaint filed by either Miguel's family or anyone on this," Maxon said. "And therefore it's not the type of complaint that we review."

A preliminary investigation by the Pittsfield Police Department that was released in late April determined the involved officers acted in compliance with established guidelines for use of force. Earlier this month, District Attorney Andrea Harrington's investigation cleared the shooting officer Nicholas Sondrini of criminal charges, stating that he used lawful force with his firearm in self-defense.

Two possible options that PARB has are to file a complaint and make a public records request, which might be subject to legal opinion, or to amend its ordinance.

"Which I would say no kidding if we can't review the kind of complaints that we were reconstituted to be able to review," Maxon said about making amendments.

Member Erin Sullivan feels that the city continues to move forward with topics that the board has discussed, including a co-responder model for mental health calls.

"The city continues to make decisions and move forward on issues that have been topics of our past conversations and past meetings," she said. "And without any regard to any of the work that we have done or are planned to do."

Member Marie Richardson agreed with Sullivan's sentiments, adding that she reads local media articles and concludes that decisions are being made elsewhere.

"I don't know what we're doing actually," she added.

"The policies of the Pittsfield Police Department led to the murder of a young man," NAACP member and community leader Kamaar Taliaferro said, adding that a coalition quickly gathered and called for a public forum and a full detailed understanding of what happened.

He said no such forum was organized by elected officials and public servants and the responsibility was ultimately passed to PARB.

Taliaferro observed that the panel's capacity is strictly limited to receiving and transmitting citizen complaints and reviewing finalized Police Department internal affairs reports regarding citizen complaints. He added that PARB is an advisory panel, has had little or no interaction with the community, and has struggled to define its purpose.

"Placing those factors within the context of what has and has not happened after Miguel's murder, to me it becomes apparent that PARB has no useful role to play in providing civilian oversight of police shootings," he said.

"Nor have been the municipal body tasked with convening the community discussion on what community safety means to us, us being the broader community."

Maxon clarified that the panel has not received one citizen complaint and without using COVID-19 as an excuse, said it prevented community interaction.

Lt. Col. Thomas Grady asked that Taliaferro not use inflammatory language, pointing to his use of the word "murder," which was not the determination of the investigations.

"I don't think that serves us well," he said. "We can talk about the death of a person, talk about the circumstances leading there but I think using emotive and inflammatory language doesn't serve a great purpose and that's just my opinion."

Taliaferro responded by saying he understood that Grady is considering "murder" in its legal definition but he is using "murder" to recognize the systemic inequities.

"As a person is murdered — is shot and killed, excuse me, because they're suffering from a mental health crisis, in my book that is murder," he said.

Resident Kelan O'Brien also spoke about the use of the word.  

 "I think that it's important to be really mindful of making claims about people being emotional about people dying and I think that when thinking about language, language is really important, language holds a lot of power, words have a lot of power and the people in power are the ones who determine what languages are used," he said.

"So when we think about the fact that the word murder is not this official term, that has been used by people who are reporting out on this, it's the same people who were involved in the act, and the same people who were involved in the investigations.

"And so I hope that we can take a moment and just think about the ways that we challenge power and think about the ways that we allow ourselves to be influenced by the people who have all the power actually in their hand, whether that be through weapons, whether that be through the ability to review a document, what have you.  So yeah, I think there's a lot of space for interpretation of what actually happened."

In this meeting, the board also made recommendations to stop using the words "unfounded" and "exonerated" in findings from community reports. This came with a stipulation that discussion takes place to come up with a different language.

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