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‘They let us down drastically’: Family of Herman Whitfield III files wrongful death lawsuit against city, officers

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The family of Herman Whitfield III, who died April 25 while in police custody during an apparent mental health crisis, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the city and police officers involved, alleging they used excessive force against Whitfield.

According to the lawsuit, Whitfield, 39, was experiencing a mental health crisis at home when his mother called 911 and asked for an ambulance to assist her and her husband. Police responded at 3:20 a.m., Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department said in an update shortly after the incident.

“This was a call for Herman during this mental crisis and he wound up dead because of first responders, who are the people you depend on in these situations, and they let us down drastically,” his father, Herman Whitfield Jr., said at a press conference June 22 at Cruz Law Firm, which is representing the family.

Related: Mourners remember Herman Whitfield III at vigil, continue calls for new crisis response team

When officers arrived, Whitfield’s father asked where the ambulance was, but the officers didn’t respond, according to the lawsuit. The officers then spoke to Whitfield, but he “could not cogently respond to their questions” because of his mental health crisis.

At one point, according to the lawsuit, Whitfield was sitting naked on his bed. Officers asked him to put clothes on, but he didn’t appear to understand their instructions.

Officers then followed Whitfield into the kitchen and dining room, the lawsuit says. One of the officers, Steven Sanchez, was waiting in the dining room with his stun gun pointed at the doorway, according to the lawsuit, and deployed it at least twice at Whitfield when he walked in.

According to police at the time, officers “lost sight” of Whitfield in the home, and after 10 minutes of negotiating, Whitfield “moved quickly towards an officer.”

Israel Nunez Cruz and Richard Waples, the attorneys representing the family, said at the press conference the body camera footage they reviewed shows a different account of the incident — specifically in the moments leading up to Whitfield being tased and the moments after.

Faith leaders: Fire officers involved in Herman Whitfield III’s death

Whitfield collapsed to the floor “writhing in pain” and yelling “fire, fire, fire,” after being hit by the stun gun, the lawsuit says. Whitfield was handcuffed with two pairs of handcuffs on the ground and said “I can’t breathe” at least three times, according to the lawsuit.

There was a three- to four-minute window between Whitfield saying “I can’t breathe” and paramedics arriving, the attorneys said. When medics arrived, they told Whitfield to roll over, but he didn’t respond. Whitfield’s handcuffs were removed, and medics checked for a pulse and performed CPR. The family’s attorneys said the officers didn’t give medical aid to Whitfield.

The six officers named in the lawsuit are Sanchez, who allegedly deployed the stun gun, Adam Ahmad, Matthew Virt, Dominique Clark, Jordan Bull and Nicholas Matthew. All officers were previously identified by IMPD and have been on administrative leave during the investigation.

Herman Whitfield Jr. and Gladys Whitfield said they miss their son but are grateful they have his music to listen to during a press conference June 22, 2022. (Photo/Jayden Kennett)

The lawsuit was filed June 22 in the U.S. District Court Southern District of Indiana.

In a statement, IMPD said it does not comment on pending litigation. The department has yet to release body camera footage to the public but said it will “soon.”

The city has a trained crisis response team — the Mobile Crisis Assistance Team, or MCAT — that responds to mental health calls with a trained physician; however, the team only operates from 7:30 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday through Friday.

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Whitfield’s family and lawyers said they aren’t aware of Whitfield being intoxicated or on drugs during the incident. Toxicology reports will be available in the coming weeks. Waples said if Whitfield had ingested anything, “it wouldn’t have mattered” because he was not acting aggressively.

“He shouldn’t have died,” Waples said. “They should have gotten him help, they tried to get him help. They were in their own home and instead officers killed their son.”

Concerned Clergy of Indianapolis, Baptists Minister’s Alliance and National Action Network of Indiana released a statement saying they are outraged by the “senseless murder.”

“The killing of young African Americans by law enforcement cannot continue while at the same time expecting people to come forward to address homicides that have not been solved,” the statement said. “As faith-based leaders in this city, we will not sit on the sideline and watch the mentally ill killed in our city.”

Contact staff writer Jayden Kennett at 317-762-7847 or email at jaydenk@indyrecorder.com. Follow her on Twitter @JournoJay.

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