INDIANAPOLIS — The Marion County Coroner’s Office ruled the death of a man in police custody a homicide.
Herman Whitfield III died from “cardiopulmonary arrest in the setting of law enforcement subdual, prone restraint and conducted electrical weapon use,” according to the coroner’s office.
The report also listed “morbid obesity” and “hypertensive cardiovascular disease” (a condition related to high blood pressure) as contributing conditions.
Whitfield, 39, died after police were called to his parents’ home on April 25. Whitfield was in the midst of a mental health crisis, his parents said, and called 911 to request an ambulance. His father told police his son was “having a psychosis.”
WARNING: Video contains images some viewers may find disturbing. The footage has been provided and edited by IMPD.
Police entered the home, where they found Whitfield standing naked in a hallway and sweating. He moved around the home and while police made efforts to communicate with him, the efforts were largely unsuccessful.
Police used a Taser on Whitfield after trying to engage him in conversation. They’d lost sight of him as he moved through different rooms in the house. He eventually sat on a bed and his parents gathered clothes for him.
He then got up and moved toward his parents and an officer in the hallway. Whitfield went into the kitchen, where he threw items around. When he went into the dining room, an officer deployed a Taser.
While Whitfield was on the floor, the Taser was deployed a second time. Officers then converged on him, handcuffing him as he lay on his stomach. Attorneys for Whitfield’s family said officers put him at risk of asphyxia by keeping their body weight on him while he was restrained and described their use of force as “unreasonable, excessive and deadly.”
He was heard saying “I can’t breathe” in the body camera footage. He later died at the hospital.
“As his death occurred during a physical prone restraint, and this restraint played a role in his death, the manner of death is listed as homicide,” the coroner’s report concluded.
IMPD’s General Order 8.1 states the signs a person may be at a greater increase of suffocation if put in the prone position, which includes bizarre behavior, profuse sweating, shouting and screaming, thrashing after restraint and hallucinations.
All IMPD officers receive 8 hours of mental health first aid and go through training specifically related to detentions.
“Psychologists in the moment still have a hard time, somebody with a Ph.D. is still going to have a hard time,” IU Criminologist Stephanie Whitehead said.
In June, the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department released body camera footage from the incident. The footage was not in its raw form and was edited. Earlier in the month, Whitfield’s family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the city of Indianapolis and six officers who responded to the Whitfield home.
IMPD Chief Randal Taylor has asked the IMPD Critical Incident Response Team to finish its criminal investigation into Whitfield’s death and present the case to the Marion County Prosecutor’s Office by the end of the day on Friday. The prosecutor’s office will ultimately decide if charges are warranted.
The officers involved remain on non-enforcement, administrative duty, according to IMPD. The Use of Force Review Board will also examine the case to determine if officers followed the department’s policies. Disciplinary action could follow based on the board’s recommendations.
The Baptist Minister’s Alliance, National Action Network of Indiana and the Concerned Clergy of Indianapolis released a statement:
We continue to be outraged by the senseless murder of Herman Whitfield, III who suffered a mental health breakdown. With the announcement from the Marion County Coroner’s Office related to the autopsy report, we would like to suggest the following actions be taken:
- We recommend that the IMPD Chief of Police immediately fire the officers who were directly involved in the death of Herman Whitfield III by keeping him pinned face down, including the supervisor who did not direct officers to sit Mr. Whitfield up.
- We recommend that the Prosecutor make appropriate charges against officers engaged in the death of Herman Whitfield.
- We recommend that the Mayor Joe Hogsett direct Cooperate Counsel to settle with the Whitfield family immediately rather than drag things out through a long legal process.
- We recommend that MCAT be immediately funded to provide support 24 hours per day, seven days a week.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” The words of Dr. King could never be truer. As a result, we want to see progress made in our city for those suffering mental illness who deserve to be protected and served. These acts of accountability that have been suggested are not just for our generation, but for the generations that follow, for our sons and daughters and for their children.
Rick Snyder, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge #86, also reacted with a statement:
Public statements regarding the death of Mr. Herman Whitfield III reportedly indicate that the Marion County Coroner listed the manner of death as “homicide” occurring “in the setting of a law enforcement subdual.”
First and foremost, the outcome of this incident is a tragedy for all involved and we
extend condolences to the family of Mr. Whitfield.
We also recognize the emotional trauma for the officers involved who were called to the scene to intervene and assist during this matter.
We await a full and fair review of the facts surrounding this evolving investigation based on the facts known by those involved at the time of the incident, including the officers on the scene.
Meanwhile, it is important to remember a determination of homicide does not mean the actions of the officers were criminal in nature.
In fact, of the five legal manner of death options available to the coroner, it is often the term chosen to describe a death occurring in a struggle with another.
To date, there is no allegation of criminal culpability and it’s apparent several contributing factors were involved. Yet the outcome remains tragic nonetheless.
Our professional police officers remain focused on providing service and protection for all in Indianapolis as this matter remains under review.