INDIANAPOLIS – The family of a man who died in police custody during a mental health crisis earlier this year has field a wrongful death lawsuit against the city of Indianapolis and six IMPD officers.
On April 25, police were called to a home in the 3700 block of Marrison Place, where 39-year-old Herman Whitfield III was having a mental health episode.
His mother called 911 and asked for an ambulance to help her and her husband get mental health care for their son. Instead, the lawsuit said, police deployed a Taser and essentially crushed the breath from him.
Six officers arrived at the residence and asked if everybody was OK. Whitfield’s mother responded in the affirmative, and his father asked where the ambulance was.
Officers entered the home and spoke to Whitfield. However, he was “undergoing a mental health crisis” and “could not cogently” respond to any questions, the lawsuit said. Whitfield was sitting naked on his bed at one point and didn’t respond to officers after they asked him to put on some clothes.
Whitfield “didn’t appear to understand” the instructions because he was in the midst of a mental health crisis, the lawsuit said.
After about ten minutes, Whitfield got up from the bed and walked around the house. He eventually entered the dining room. One officer was waiting in the dining room; when Whitfield arrived, the officer deployed his Taser at least twice.
IMPD said Whitfield ran toward an officer, but the lawsuit said that is not true.
Whitfield collapsed and yelled, “fire, fire,” as the Taser was activated, sending pulses of electricity through his body.
“[Whitfield] had not threatened the officers verbally or physically, and because of his mental health crisis, was simply not responding to their demands that he get dressed and leave,” the complaint said.
The lawsuit noted that Whitfield never threatened officers or struck them. Police said in April that Whitfield ran toward an officer, causing him to deploy his Taser.
“He wasn’t physically aggressive with anyone, he wasn’t physically aggressive with his parents, he wasn’t physically aggressive with any of the officers,” said Richard Waples, one of the attorneys for the Whitfield family.
While Whitfield was lying on his stomach on the floor, officers cuffed him from behind. With several officers on top of him, Whitfield struggled to breathe. According to the lawsuit, Whitfield can be heard in body camera footage saying, “I can’t breathe.” He made the comment at least three times, with officers keeping their weight on his body while they waited for medical crews to arrive.
”He was saying, ‘I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe,'” Waples said. “He said it three times and then he went limp.”
Whitfield later died at a hospital.
Body camera footage of the incident has not been released to the public, something the family is calling for.
”IMPD should release the actual raw videos,” said Israel Cruz, another attorney for the Whitfield family.
The lawsuit argued that officers put Whitfield at “significant risk of positional asphyxia” by keeping their body weight on him while he was in a prone position. Attorneys for the family also argued that the city’s mental health unit would not have responded by using a Taser in the situation.
“Mr. Whitfield died because of the force used against him by the defendant officers,” the lawsuit said. “The force used against Herman Whitfield was unreasonable, excessive, and deadly.”
The family is hoping this lawsuit will lead to better mental health responses in the future from IMPD.
“We want to see IMPD change its protocol and make help available for individuals who are suffering from mental health issues 24 hours a day and not just part of the day,” Cruz said.
The lawsuit names the city of Indianapolis along with six Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department officers: Steven Sanchez, Adam Ahmad, Matthew Virt, Dominique Clark, Jordan Bull and Nicholas Mathew.
The lawsuit seeks compensatory and punitive damages.
The Marion County Coroner’s Office has yet to issue in official cause of death or a toxicology report in Whitfield’s death. Waples said he was told it would be another week or two before that information was put out there.
IMPD said it wouldn’t comment on pending litigation and added that the officers are on administrative duty.