A Police Murder in Western Massachusetts Shows How Economic Inequality Kills

In the deindustrialized town of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, police recently killed a man having a mental health episode. Now residents are organizing to attack the deep social and economic ills that led to his death.

As in countless other US cities, police in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, largely exist not to serve the public but to manage the poor and working class, often racial minorities. (AJ Colores / Unsplash)

The police don’t wear body cameras in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Some believe that’s why there are so many questions about the death of Miguel Estrella.

In March, Estrella was shot twice by officers in the Western Massachusetts city while intoxicated, distraught, and hurting himself. His friends had called emergency services for help. Witnesses say the shooting was unnecessary; Miguel could have been subdued by nonlethal means. He had been disarmed and attended to by police earlier that night, but officers declined to take him to a hospital for observation.

The police say that while the shooting was indeed tragic, it was also unavoidable. Miguel had advanced on officers with a knife — they acted lawfully and to protect lives. Police claim Estrella did not meet the criteria for a person in crisis — a technical distinction given to those under the extreme influence of mental illness or drugs — and therefore didn’t require a hospital visit. (The district attorney’s office has acknowledged the 911 call that brought police to the scene made clear that Estrella had a history of depression.)

In the wake of Estrella’s death, family, friends, and local organizers have formed a coalition dedicated to winning reform from the city and its police. They want to see an independent, unarmed crisis response team and money invested in social services. Some have more modest goals: police body cameras and better training.

Pittsfield is a city of about 45,000 people, marked by sharp income and wealth inequality that fundamentally shapes policing. As in countless other US cities, police in Pittsfield largely exist not to serve the public but to manage the poor and working class, often racial minorities. This social divide determines who is policed, what constitutes a crime, and who is considered a person in crisis versus a threat to be neutralized.

For some in the local reform coalition, that reality is central to their organizing efforts. Body cameras, they insist, won’t address the deep economic and social ills that killed Miguel Estrella.

Westside Story

Michael Hitchcock is the executive director of Roots and Dreams and Mustard Seeds, a Pittsfield-area group that seeks to help working-class people build social and economic power, mainly through worker-owned businesses and co-op housing. Hitchcock is a founding member of the coalition pushing for police reform.

At the first meeting of the police advisory board after Estrella’s shooting, Hitchcock stressed the disconnect between the officials overseeing police and the people most subject to policing:

Try as you may, you are not representative of the community. There are now thousands of Latinos throughout the county, and many live and work in Pittsfield. There are people who are very impoverished, and this board is more toward the middle-class side than the impoverished side. . . . Your board is meant to be a conduit for community voices, but community voices are less likely to be able to talk to people who don’t speak their language, who don’t look like them, and who have much more affluence than they do.

Hitchcock sounded a similar note in an interview with Jacobin, painting a picture of a police force disconnected from the poor neighborhoods it is tasked with managing:

Like most places, most policing is done here via traffic stops or when [police] are called to a scene. There’s very little foot patrol stuff here outside of special events. It’s all cruising around waiting for calls and stopping traffic. And you know how much of the police stopping traffic is all about fishing — pretextual stops.

Hitchcock grew up in the Westside neighborhood of Pittsfield, the same area where Miguel lived and was murdered. Westside, like most of Pittsfield, is predominantly white. However, the racist legacy of redlining has concentrated the city’s minority residents in areas like Westside that have been historically underresourced and have borne the brunt of deindustrialization in recent decades.

Throughout much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Pittsfield was an economic hub thanks to its location on the Housatonic River. Raw materials were transported to and from the city for manufacturing, and the river provided power for mills and furnaces. Beginning in the early 1900s, General Electric became the city’s dominant business, producing everything from transistors to plastics and employing nearly 14,000 people by 1943. Pittsfield was functionally a company town: residents referred to the business as “the GE,” much as one would refer to “the government.” Yet wages and benefits were decent, hard-won through decades of labor struggle.

That changed in the early 1980s. GE fought the Environmental Protection Agency over the company’s dumping of carcinogenic chemicals into the Housatonic, slashed manufacturing jobs across the country, and shifted from a maker of goods to a major player in the financial services industry. Pittsfield was left with a polluted river and a crisis of unemployment. Racial minorities — typically the first fired and last to be rehired — were hit particularly hard. And while the health care industry replaced GE as a major employer, hospitals offered fewer jobs, at lower wages.

Neighborhoods like Westside became the dumping grounds for capitalism’s waste products. Abandoned factories, industrial pollution, and dilapidated houses proliferated. And poverty and the stress and trauma of economic precarity drove up drug abuse, petty crime, and violence.

Another Killing

Miguel Estrella wasn’t the first person experiencing a mental health crisis that Pittsfield police officers have shot and killed. In 2017, Daniel Gillis, a white man, was killed by police in a situation eerily similar to Estrella’s murder. Gillis’s girlfriend called emergency services after he arrived at her house heavily intoxicated and threatening to harm himself. Police showed up and failed to deescalate the situation. They shot Gillis seven times.

Five years later, Pittsfield residents dealing with mental illness problems still don’t have adequate help available, Westside resident and coalition member Dana Rasso told Jacobin:

If anything, things have gotten worse for those of us in Berkshire County with mental health issues. . . . There aren’t enough therapists, and the ones we do have are underpaid and stretched thin. We haven’t prioritized mental health (or any other form of health care, for that matter), and the county is worse off for it.

At the same time, Rasso notes, the city is purchasing new toys for the police rather than addressing the needs of poor and working-class residents. “One of the most insidious and ridiculous examples of this is ShotSpotter,” she said, referring to the technology designed to detect gunfire. “Our city has spent a lot of money to implement this particularly useless form of surveillance. A three-year contract left our city on the hook for $200,000.”

Some in the reform coalition think body cameras are a more fruitful technology to improve public safety. A petition to have the Pittsfield police implement body cameras was recently approved by the city council. But the evidence suggests that body cameras and “less than lethal” weapons like tasers (Pittsfield also received a $40,000 grant to buy tasers and BolaWrap launchers) do not produce any meaningful reduction in police violence and misconduct. Indeed, the two most recent police shootings in Pittsfield occurred in front of a number of witnesses.

Hitchcock sympathizes with those who believe that body cams are a logical solution to what happened to Estrella. But he sees it as a kind of faux accountability, with any potential good coming far too late:

I understand the impulse to ask for more training and body cams, because in your normal day-to-day life those two requests seem like they would make you safer. We all get training to be better at our jobs, and we all get oversight and observation. But it’s an illusion in the case of cops — it doesn’t work the way we think it’s gonna work.

A much better approach, Hitchcock and others argue, is to address the problems in Westside and other economically depressed areas by meeting the material needs of the people living there.

A Better Pittsfield

People who knew Miguel Estrella almost universally describe him as warm, friendly, and committed to his community. He worked for Habitat for Humanity as a builder, working to provide low-cost housing to Westside residents. His dream was to become an electrician.

Estrella’s family, friends, and neighbors are hurting from his death — a death caused not just by an officer’s inability to de-escalate but also by decades of economic decisions that left him and his neighborhood alone and adrift.

Dana Rasso hopes that her community can rally from this tragedy and choose its people over the needs of capital:

If the past forty years have demonstrated nothing else, it’s that Pittsfield can weather change. We’ve struggled with it when it was detrimental to our welfare, but what we’re advocating for is the type of change that will make for a happier, healthier community in the long run.