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Family claims man died of positional asphyxia: 'You don't keep someone prone after they've been handcuffed'

Herman Whitfield III's family claims IMPD officers left him in prone position for 3-4 minutes before his death.
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Posted at 5:38 PM, Jun 22, 2022
and last updated 2022-06-23 13:00:13-04

INDIANAPOLIS — Indianapolis police have a strict policy aimed at preventing positional asphyxia, a deadly condition that happens when a handcuffed person is placed in a position that makes it hard for them to inhale and exhale.

The family of Herman Whitfield III claims that IMPD officers did not follow that policy when they handcuffed the 39-year-old and left him face-down on his belly for several minutes before he died in their custody on April 25.

"The officers’ body cam videos show that shortly after Mr. Whitfield cried, 'I can’t breathe,' the third time, he did not move or breath at all," attorneys for Whitfield's family say in a lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court in Indianapolis. "Yet the officers continued to put weight on him for three to four minutes before medics arrived."

WRTV has not seen the video, but Whitfield's parents and their lawyers have and they describe it in the federal lawsuit filed Wednesday.

The Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department has not released body camera footage of the arrest, 911 calls or any other records of the incident. On May 3, IMPD denied WRTV's requests for body camera videos citing the ongoing investigation.

Seth Stoughton, a University of South Carolina law professor and an expert in police use of force, said when suspects tell arresting officers they can't breathe, the officers should listen.

"You don't keep someone prone after they've been handcuffed. Even if they're still kicking or fussing a little bit, you don't keep them prone after they're handcuffed," Stoughton told WRTV in a phone interview Wednesday.

"It seems kind of obvious but if someone is saying they can't breathe, that is also a warning sign that they can't breathe."

Police departments across the country have been aware of the dangers of positional asphyxia for three decades, Stoughton said. Law enforcement knows, Stoughton said, that when a person is handcuffed behind the back and placed on his or her stomach, that person faces a danger of death from positional asphyxia.

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Herman Whitfield Jr. and Gladys Whitfield.

IMPD trains all of its officers on positional asphyxia, Lt. Shane Foley, an IMPD spokesman, told WRTV.

The department's General Order regarding use of force states: “Officers will not restrain subjects who are in custody and under control in a manner that restricts their ability to breathe, and shall reposition the subject into a recovery position as soon as practical."

Richard A. Waples and Israel Nunez Cruz, lawyers for Whitfield's parents Herman Whitfield Jr. and Gladys Whitfield, said the body camera video shows the IMPD officers at Whitfield's home that night disregarded this order.

"They (the officers) heard him on the video saying clearly 'I can't breathe' at least three times," Waples said during a news conference Downtown Wednesday. "They (IMPD officials) acknowledge that they should have been trained to do that and it didn't happen."

IMPD Chief Randal Taylor declined to comment Wednesday citing the lawsuit, but said results of an internal investigation into Whitfield's death are pending. The city's attorneys also declined to comment.

According to IMPD, officers were called to Whitfield's home when he was suffering a mental crisis. The officers spent more than 10 minutes of negotiating and using de-escalation tactics when IMPD said Whitfield quickly moved toward an officer. That officer shot Whitfield with a Taser. Officers arrested and placed Whitfield in double handcuffs.

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Isreal Cruz (left) and Richard Waples.

Waples refuted IMPD's account of the incident. He said the body camera video shows that Whitfield made no aggressive move before the officer fired the Taser. Again, WRTV has not seen the video because IMPD has not released it.

Stoughton, a national expert in use of force who provided key testimony in the murder trial of Derek Chauvin — the former officer accused of killing George Floyd in Minneapolis, said the way a person breathes is related to the way they are standing, sitting or even sleeping.

"You know, with babies you put them on their back to sleep, right?" Stoughton explained. "That's so that the weight of their body doesn't push down on their diaphragm making it more difficult for them to breathe."

He also pointed track and field athletes recovering after a race with arms and head held high as they breathe.

"They're expanding their rib cage. They're trying to get as much air in as possible," Stoughton said. "You never see someone after exertion recovering by laying face down and putting their hands behind their back, right? Because that that's not a position that really allows for full respiration, that allows for full breathing."

The point, he said, is police should know better.

"What matters is we know that this position contributes to a risk of serious injury or death," Stoughton said. "So officers need to not keep someone in that position after they've handcuffed them."

Contact WRTV reporter Vic Ryckaert at victor.ryckaert@wrtv.com or on Twitter: @vicryc

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