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Family of man who died in IMPD custody suing city and 6 officers; Police release bodycam video

The lawsuit claims the officers ignored Herman Whitfield III's cries of "I can't breathe" and left him in the prone position.

INDIANAPOLIS — The family of Herman Whitfield III filed a federal wrongful death lawsuit against the city of Indianapolis and six IMPD officers. 

The lawsuit claims the family had called for help April 25 when Whitfield, 39, was undergoing a mental health crisis in his home. The lawsuit claims the officers used a stun gun on Whitfield and then "crushed the breath out of an unarmed, non-violent Mr. Whitfield."

The lawsuit also claims the officers ignored Whitfield's cries of "I can't breathe."

The family said the claims in the lawsuit are supported by police officers' bodycam videos. Those videos were released to the public on June 28, more than two months after Whitfield's death.. 

(NOTE: The IMPD critical incident video has graphic content and language. Viewer discretion is advised.)

The lawsuit asserts there was no reason for officers to have used a stun gun on Whitfield and that officers violated their own training by leaving Whitfield face-down after he was restrained. 

"Mr. Whitfield, who was in his family home, needed professional mental health care, not the use of excessive deadly force," the statement from the family reads.

The family said their call to 911 was to request an ambulance to come and help them with getting mental health care for their son. Instead, they said the officers arrived.

"The first responders you call on in these situations let us down," Whitfield's father said during a news conference on Wednesday.

The family said they asked about the ambulance, but the officers did not respond to that and instead entered the home and began talking to Whitfield. The lawsuit said Whitfield began walking through the home, unarmed, and that when he went into the dining room, an officer deployed a stun gun on him twice. They say Whitfield can be heard yelling "fire," "fire," in response to the feeling of the electricity from the stun gun.

The officers then restrained and handcuffed Whitfield, according to the lawsuit. The family said Whitfield can be heard on the bodycam video "gasping for breath and telling the officers at least three times: 'I can't breathe.'"

The lawsuit claims after the last time Whitfield said he could not breathe, he stopped moving. It claims officers continued to put weight on Whitfield for another three to four minutes before medics were brought in to assist. The family said the bodycam video shows none of the officers tried to give first aid to Whitfield during those three to four minutes before medics were allowed inside.

RELATED: Black clergy calls for IMPD officers to be fired; city to implement clinician-led mobile crisis team after man died in custody

The lawsuit explains that officers are trained to not leave arrestees in the prone position and instead to sit them up to help with breathing. The lawsuit claims: "There is widespread agreement in the policing community that prone restraint creates a serious risk of positional asphyxia, and that this risk is exacerbated when officers apply pressure to an individual’s back."

Once the ambulance crew arrived, the lawsuit claims they told the officers to get Whitfield up off of his stomach. Whitfield was unresponsive and medics started CPR, but Whitfield never regained consciousness. 

"Mr. Whitfield died because of the force used against him by the defendant officers," the lawsuit claims.

The family said they are still waiting on toxicology reports, but said they were not aware of him being on any medication or anything else that might have altered his mental state the night of his death. The attorneys said that the Marion County Coroner's Office told them Wednesday it would be another week or two before toxicology reports would be available. However, their attorney said that regardless of the toxicology findings, the bodycam video shows Whitfield was not acting in an aggressive way in interacting with officers.

The lawsuit is also critical of the city's mental health response unit, which is only available during some regular business hours and not in the early morning hours when Whitfield was having a mental health crisis. 

During a news conference June 22, the family said they could not comment on any past mental health issues or if Whitfield was on any medication the night he died. In the bodycam video, they can be heard saying he had no previous diagnosis.

Whitfield was a composer and pianist. He was even featured in a video by Indy Arts Council in 2009. His family said he composed his first symphony at 8 or 9 years old and was a very compassionate person.

"People would often say he was a gift to the world," Whitfield's mother said.

In response to the release of the bodycam video, the family's attorney sent a statement to 13News. In it, they call the IMPD video "a selective and biased account of the events."

They say the video is edited and narrated to present a false narrative of what happened and leaves out important parts. As an example, the family said it shows an IMPD officer waiting for Whitfield with his stun gun drawn and they say Whitfield never rushes toward the officer as IMPD claims.

Whitfield's family is also critical of IMPD noting what it feels are key points throughout the video, but making no reference to Whitfield being heard saying over and over that he could not breathe.

The family is calling on IMPD to release the entirety of the bodycam video from officers.

"The Whitfield family calls on IMPD to honestly respond to these important issues and not present a biased and false narrative of Herman’s death. All body cam videos should be released, and IMPD should honestly respond to the misconduct of its officers which led to Herman’s death," the statement reads in part.

IMPD claims

According to IMPD, officers were called to the 700 block of Marrison Place, near North Sherman Drive and East 42nd Street, around 3:20 a.m. April 25. A man told officers his son was "having a psychosis" and asked for an ambulance, which was then called to the home.  

Credit: IMPD

According to IMPD, Whitfield was bleeding from the mouth and was moving around the home, naked and sweating. Officers lost sight of him several times. 

IMPD claims officers used de-escalation techniques.

In the bodycam video, Whitfield can be seen at one point rushing out of a bedroom and into the kitchen. You can hear items banging around as IMPD claims Whitfield was throwing items. An officer can be heard telling Whitfield, "Put it down. Hey! Stop picking things up!"

Credit: IMPD

Whitfield then rushes out of the room and into a dining room area. An officer in that area had his stun gun at the ready and used it on Whitfield twice. You can hear Whitfield shouting "fire."

IMPD claims Whitfield "moved quickly towards an officer." That officer deployed a stun device, but police said Whitfield continued to resist.

Credit: IMPD

Proper IMPD procedure requires officers to give a verbal warning before using a stun gun when possible, then aiming below the chest and heart when pulling the trigger. IMPD originally said one of the stun gun's probes hit Whitfield in the chest. But in a revised release days later, IMPD said the probe actually hit Whitfield in the abdomen. IMPD said that revised information comes from the autopsy and review of officers' body-worn cameras.

Data from the stun gun was downloaded and showed it was deployed twice. It fires for five seconds and was then deployed a second time four seconds later.

Credit: IMPD

RELATED: Investigation underway after man dies in IMPD custody, officers identified

Whitfield was eventually restrained using two pairs of handcuffs. IMPD said linking two pairs of handcuffs typically provides "more comfort to larger individuals." Whitfield was approximately 6'2" tall and weighed 280 pounds, according to police.

During that time, you can hear Whitfield saying "I can't breathe" as officers place the handcuffs on him. Whitfield can be heard wheezing and then going silent.

An IMPD public information officer said, "once the man was detained, medics, who had been waiting outside for the scene to be safe to enter, were requested to come inside the home. The bodycam video appears to confirm that request was made at that time.

In the video, Whitfield remains face-down with officers' hands on his back, holding him down. He does not move or make any sound.

Credit: IMPD

The IMPD video is edited and does not show the time between when officers handcuffed Whitfield and the medics arrive. IMPD claims in the video that it was approximately three minutes later.

At that point, medics asked the man to roll over and he did not respond. After medics checked for a pulse, Whitfield was unhandcuffed, and medics and several officers administered CPR, according to IMPD. The edited video does not show Whitfield's handcuffs being removed or CPR being performed.

Whitfield was taken to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead a short time later.

On June 28, IMPD released the bodycam video publicly. 

IMPD said the officers involved remain on administrative duty, IMPD said July 20. They were identified as patrol officers Steven Sanchez (two-year veteran), Adam Ahmad (two-year veteran), Matthew Virt (two-year veteran), Dominique Clark (five-year veteran), Jordan Bull (seven-year veteran) and recruit trainee Nicholas Mathew (with IMPD since August 2021).

On July 20, IMPD said it had received the coroner's report for Whitfield's death from the Marion County Coroner's Office, which allows for IMPD investigators to move forward with the next steps in the criminal and administrative investigations.

IMPD Chief Randal Taylor has instructed the IMPD Critical Incident Response Team to finish remaining aspects of the criminal investigation and present the case to the Marion County Prosecutor's Office by the end of the day Friday. The prosecutor's office will determine whether the case warrants criminal charges.

A separate administrative investigation is being conducted by IMPD Internal Affairs. 

After the criminal investigation and any criminal proceedings, the civilian-majority Use of Force Review Board will review the investigations and make a recommendation to the Chief of Police on whether the officers' actions were in compliance with department training and policies, IMPD said.

Taylor will review those investigations and recommendations and consider discipline up to a recommendation of termination to the IMPD Civilian Police Merit Board.

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