INDIANAPOLIS — Family and police say Herman Whitfield III was in the throes of a mental health crisis when police arrived at his northeast-side home on April 25.
Whitfield's parents say they called 911 that night expecting to see an ambulance. They didn't want police.
Instead, according to a lawsuit filed by Whitfield's parents, the arriving officers shocked Whitfield with a Taser, handcuffed him and left him face-down on a carpeted floor for several minutes. The officers, the lawsuit claims, ignored Whitfield's repeated pleas of "I can't breathe."
A video of the incident shows Whitfield, 39, on the ground struggling under the weight of officers who had him secured in two pairs of handcuffs.
Medics arrive and found Whitfield unresponsive. The nationally recognized pianist and music composer died at a hospital.
Whitfield's death has raised questions about police use of force and the way public safety officials ought to respond to people suffering a crisis of mental health or substance abuse.
Here's what we know about Herman Whitfield III, his mental health crisis and how the city, his family and community leaders have reacted to his death.
Gladys Whitfield called 911 at about 3:20 a.m. April 25 asking for help with their son who was suffering a mental health crisis at their home in the 3700 block of Marrison Place, according to a critical incident video released by IMPD.
"I need someone to come. My son is having some sort of episode," Gladys tells the 911 dispatcher.
Officers arrive minutes later. Their body cameras capture the moment Whitfield's father greets them at the front door.
"My son is having a psychosis," Herman Whitfield Jr. is heard on police body camera video telling the officers. "You guys should have called an ambulance."
Officers immediately called for an ambulance, according to an IMPD news release issued at 8:51 p.m. on April 25, about 18-and-a-half hours after Whitfield's parents called 911.
Officers, the release said, found Whitfield moving around the home naked, sweating and bleeding from the mouth. After more than 10 minutes of negotiating and using de-escalation tactics, IMPD said Whitfield ""moved quickly towards an officer."
"The officer deployed his electronic control device, more commonly known as a Taser," IMPD said in the April 25 news release. "The officer activated the Taser twice. The man continued to resist after the deployment of the Taser."
Whitfield was a big man, standing 6-feet, 2-inches tall and weighing 280 pounds, IMPD's news release said.
"Due to the man’s size, officers placed him in two pair of linked handcuffs, which typically provides more comfort to larger individuals," IMPD said.
Police summoned the medics, who had been waiting outside for the scene to be secured.
Medics asked Whitfield to roll over and he did not respond, IMPD said in the news release.
"After medics checked for a pulse, the male was unhandcuffed and medics and several officers administered CPR," IMPD said. "Medics transported the man to a local hospital, where medical professionals pronounced him deceased shortly after arrival."
'I can't breathe'
Whitfield's parents, Gladys and Herman Whitfield Jr., say the responding officers needlessly Tasered their son and ignored his repeated pleas of "I can't breathe" for several minutes before he stopped breathing altogether.
In a federal lawsuit, the family claimsWhitfield said “I can’t breathe” three or four times as officers put pressure on his back and kept him handcuffed, face-down on a floor.
"Mr. Whitfield did not present a danger to the officers and there was no need to taser him," Richard A. Waples and Israel Nunez Cruz, the family's attorneys, said in a news release. "The officers violated their own training in keeping Mr. Whitfield handcuffed face down after he was restrained, and after he had told them he couldn’t breathe, and when he was not moving or breathing, which led to this death."
The family of Herman Whitfield III claims that IMPD officers did not follow department 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."
Attroneys for Whitfield's parents, Gladys and Herman Whitfield Jr., say the officers did not follow IMPD's own policies 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.
IMPD'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."
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.
"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," said Stoughton, who provided key testimon y in the murder trial of Derek Chauvin — the former officer accused of killing George Floyd in Minneapolis.
"You don't keep someone prone after they've been handcuffed," Stoughton said. "Even if they're still kicking or fussing a little bit, you don't keep them prone after they're handcuffed."
Edited body cam video
IMPD on June 28 releaseda 14-minute Critical Incident Video of the incident at Whitfield's home that included recorded 911 calls and video from cameras worn by officers. The video, edited by a third-party vendor, was posted on You Tube.
"The whole purpose of of sharing these videos is for transparency," IMPD Chief Randal Taylor said. "We want to make sure that the community is aware of what we're doing — that we're not hiding anything."
The video doesn't answer all the questions surrounding Whitfield's death, Taylor said.
"In this case, nobody really knows why this gentleman died," Taylor said. "So until that autopsy is complete, and that report is complete, we won't really know."
Lt. Shane Foley, a spokesman for IMPD, said the critical incident video was edited and produced by a private contractor. You can watch the video that was released by IMPD below. Viewer discretion is advised.
Family demands full transparency
After the release of the video, the Whitfield family called for full transparency and demanded that IMPD release all bodycam videos from the night he died in police custody.
"The CIV (critical Incident Video) is biased in that it selectively includes narration and text to present a false narrative of what happened and leaves out important points which should be acknowledged by IMPD, but which the CIV shows," the Whitfield family's lawyers said in a statement.
WRTV requested unedited copies of the body camera video and 911 call recordings. IMPD denied that request.
"There is an internal affairs investigation as well as investigation and review by the Marion County Prosecutor," the department said in an email. "Therefore, given the ongoing investigations, as well as the possible tainting of any jury pool should criminal charges be filed, we will not release any further video at this time."
Church leaders want reform
Faith in Indiana's Black Church Coalition issued several calls for police reform after Whitfield's death. Faith in Indiana is a a group of church leaders who, according to their website, "work together for racial and economic equity in Indiana."
"Leaders with Faith in Indiana are demanding the release of the bodycam footage in the case of Herman Whitefield III, the man who died during an encounter with police on April 25 while seeking help with a mental health crisis," the group said in a statement on June 30.
Faith in Indiana is demanding that:
- IMPD release the unedited body camera video;
- that the city expand hours of the Mobile Crisis Assistance Teams, a specialized unit that pairs a specially trained officer and a clinician for mental health related calls.
- and that all officers involved in the Whitfield incident be fired.
Officers on administrative duty
The six officers who responded to Whitfield's home that night are Steven Sanchez, Adam Ahmad, Matthew Virt, Dominique Clark, Jordan Bull and Nicholas Mathew, IMPD said.
Sanchez and Ahmad have been with the department for a little more than two years; Virt has been on IMPD for nearly three years; Bull has been on the force for nearly eight years and Mathew is a recruit trainee with less than a year of service.
The officers are on administrative duty while the department investigates the incident, IMPD said.
Who is investigating?
The incident that led to Whitfield's death is being investigated by IMPD's Internal Affairs Unit and the Critical Incident Response Team. The Marion County Prosecutor's Office is being consulted throughout the investigation, the department said.
Talented musician, composer
Whitfield,neighbors told WRTV, was a loving man who brought people together with his music. He graduated from Oberlin College in Ohio and the Cleveland Institute of Music, according to his biography on indyartsguide.org.
In a 2003 news release, Oberlin College officials praised then 20-year-old Whitfield after his work premiered with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra
"Herman is a natural musician, with an instinctive sense of melodic and harmonic line," Professor of Pianoforte Peter Takács said in the news release. "He creates marvelous colors at the piano with an unusually delicate touch... I expect he will develop into a brilliant and original performer."
Call for change
After Whitfield's death, a group of church leaders called on Indianapolis to stop dispatching policeofficers when people are experiencing a mental health crisis.
“Officers should not be dispatched to situations where mental health professionals are best equipped to respond,” Faith In Indiana organizer Josh Riddick said in an emailed statement.
Riddick called on city leaders to “fast-track plans and scale-up clinician-led mobile crisis teams so trained professionals can respond to mental health calls, each and every time.”
Since August 2017, the city's Mobile Crisis Assistance Team has seen great success in getting treatment for those with addiction or mental health issues instead of sending them to jail, Mayor Joe Hogsett said in a speech in May.
MCAT pairs a crisis clinician with a specially trained IMPD officer. There are nine such teams in the city, operating from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays. Critics, including Faith in Indiana, have called on the city to operate these teams around the clock.
Faith in Indiana has also been leading a call for a "clinician-led response," that would no longer send officers to non-violent runs relating to mental health or substance abuse. Instead, new teams that include a social worker and a “peer support specialist” will respond.
Mayor Joe Hogsett has publicly supported the idea and vowed to launch a pilot program by next year.
Lauren Rodriguez, director of the Office of Public Health and Safety, said adopting this new model is not simple and not easy. The changes will require training dispatchers and developing guidelines for how these teams get called and respond to situations, she said.
“It's not just about getting a van and employees,” Rodriguez said. “We need to make sure that we get a van that's equipped with the right equipment, the right tools that they’re going to need.”
Contact WRTV reporter Vic Ryckaert at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter: @vicryc
More | Man who died in police custody was talented Indianapolis musician |IMPD's MCAT program offers emergency mental health resources | IMPD names officers involved in the in-custody death of gifted pianist | Mayor, IMPD chief, clergy want cops to stop going on mental health calls. Why isn't it happening? | 'Our job is to protect people from themselves': State's top cop talks tackling mental health crisis | Family claims man died of positional asphyxia: 'You don't keep someone prone after they've been handcuffed' | Family says IMPD ignored man’s cries saying ‘I can’t breathe’ before he died in custody | IMPD releases body cam video in Herman Whitfield III's in-custody death | Herman Whitfield III's family responds to IMPD's critical incident report, calls for release of all video