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Coroner: Herman Whitfield III's death in IMPD custody was a homicide

Posted at 8:39 AM, Jul 20, 2022
and last updated 2022-07-22 14:52:06-04

INDIANAPOLIS — The Marion County Coroner's Office has ruled that Herman Whitfield III's death while in police custody was a homicide, according to the family's attorneys.

Attorneys for Whitfield's family released the autopsy report to the media Wednesday. The official cause of death is "cardiopulmonary arrest in the setting of law enforcement subdual, prone restraint, and conducted electrical weapon use."

The report lists contributing factors as "morbid obesity; hypertensive cardiovascular disease."

The manner of death is homicide.

"The coroner’s findings are consistent with the body cam videos showing police officers shooting Mr. Whitfield with a taser then restraining him face down even after handcuffing and after he says 'I can’t breathe,'" attorneys Richard A. Waples and Israel Nunez Cruz said in a news release.

Whitfield's death

Whitfield III's family told police he was in the throes of a mental health crisis when officers arrived at his northeast-side home on April 25.

According to IMPD, police were called to Whitfield's home in the 3700 block of Marrison Place for a disturbance when Indianapolis Metropolitan Police department officers handcuffed and shocked him with a Taser. Whitfield died later at a hospital.

A video of the incident shows Whitfield, 39, on the ground struggling under the weight of officers who secured him in two pairs of handcuffs.

In a federal lawsuit, the family claims Whitfield 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. Moreover, the officers violated their own training by 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," Cruz and Waples said.

Positional asphyxia

IMPD has 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.

Whitfield's family claims 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.

Waples, the Whitfield family's lawyer, said the coroner's report leaves little doubt that the officers actions caused Whitfield's death.

"That's what the coroner is saying, that his heart in his lungs stopped working while he was being subdued by the law enforcement officers in a prone restraint and after he was tased," Waples said Wednesday, speaking to reporters over Zoom.

Family demands change, transparency

Whitfield's parents Herman Whitfield Jr. and Gladys Whitfield, last month sued the city of Indianapolis and the six police officers involved — Steven Sanchez, Adam Ahmad, Matthew Virt, Dominique Clark, Jordan Bull and Nicholas Mathew. The officers remain on administrative duty, IMPD said.

The family has called on the city to expand the Mobile Crisis Assistance Teams, which send a crisis clinician and a specially trained IMPD officer to mental health- and addiction-related calls.

There are nine such teams in the city, operating from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays. The Whitfield family wants them to operate around the clock.

"We call upon the city of Indianapolis to implement its crisis intervention teams 24 - 7," Waples said, "because people undergo mental health crisis at all times of the day at night. We need these services. We need professional intervention when people are undergoing mental health crisis."

Mayor Joe Hogsett's office has announced plans to launch a pilot program next year that would stop sending police on some non-violent calls related to mental health and substance abuse.

IMPD's investigation

Chief Randal Taylor said Wednesday that the department had received the autopsy finding and was moving forward with its investigation into the actions of the officers who arrested Whitfield.

On Friday, IMPD said the case had been presented to the Marion County Prosecutor's Office.

Taylor had instructed Critical Incident Response Team investigators to finish its criminal investigation and present the case to the prosecutor's office by the end of Friday, according to a Wednesday update from the department.

Once that is done, the prosecutor's office will determine whether criminal charges should be filed against any of the officers involved in Whitfield's arrest. A copy of the investigative file will also be provided to the FBI's Indianapolis Field Office, IMPD said.

A separate investigation is being conducted by IMPD Internal Affairs to determine whether the officers involved in Whitfield's arrest followed department procedures. As of Wednesday, those officers remained on non-enforcement administrative duty.

"Based on a careful review of the facts and the Use of Force Board’s feedback, Chief Taylor will consider discipline up to a recommendation of termination to the IMPD Civilian Police Merit Board," the release states.

Taylor wouldn't answer specific questions as to whether he thought the officers followed department policy that night.

Edited body camera footage

The department released body camera footage in late June — but the video was edited by a third party and does not show the full incident. WRTV has requested all 911 calls and dispatch notes, but the request was denied because the records are considered to be “investigatory records.”

Whitfield's family's attorney on Wednesday also repeated a prior demand that IMPD release the full, unedited video.

“IMPD, as a general rule, does not release such documents without a subpoena,” IMPD previously said.

Taylor has declined to comment on the video.

A statement issued on behalf of the Whitfield family in response to the video called the IMPD footage "a selective and biased account of the events."

"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 family's statement reads in part.

RELATED | Herman Whitfield III's family, community call for IMPD to release full, unedited body camera video | Herman Whitfield III's death: What we know about the gifted pianist who died in IMPD custody | Herman Whitfield III's family responds to IMPD's critical incident report, calls for release of all video | IMPD releases body cam video in Herman Whitfield III's in-custody death | 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 |