The attorneys representing an Indianapolis family whose son died while being forcibly restrained by Indianapolis police say they have filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the city and the officers involved to change the way law enforcement handles individuals with mental health issues.
“We brought the lawsuit because what happened was wrong,” Rich Waples of Waples & Hanger said. “Herman (Whitfield III) needed help. He didn’t need the use of excessive force and deadly force. He needed to get mental health help.”
Waples and Israel Cruz of the Cruz Law Office are representing Herman Whitfield’s parents, Gladys and Herman Whitfield Jr., in the court case. The lawyers and the Whitfields talked about the lawsuit at a press conference Wednesday afternoon.
According to the complaint filed in the Southern Indiana District Court, the Whitfields called for an ambulance in the spring of 2022 to help their son, who was having a mental health crisis. Six police officers arrived and eventually shot him with a Taser, then handcuffed him, left him lying on his stomach and put their weight on his back for three to four minutes.
Herman Whitfield said, “I can’t breathe” three times before he became unresponsive. Paramedics tried to revive him, but he never regained consciousness.
“We hope through this lawsuit that we will incentivize the police department to make sure these officers are trained … and to make sure they have policies that require them not to use this kind of force,” Waples said. “And if they have somebody down in a prone position to get them up right away so that they can breathe so that they don’t die.”
The attorneys noted the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department has a mental health response unit with specially trained personnel, but the team is only available at certain times during the day. Waples said the lawsuit is also trying to push the city to make the unit available around the clock.
“When the Whitfields asked for help for their son, the correct response was to send a mental health team,” Waples said. “If that had been done, we would not be here today.”
Waples and Cruz said they met with police department leaders and reviewed the body camera video from the six officers. According to the attorneys, the police officials said they heard Herman Whitfield repeatedly say he could not breathe, and they acknowledged the officers should have been trained to put him in a seated position once he was handcuffed to facilitate breathing, but that did not happen.
According to WRTV in Indianapolis, the IMPD issued a press release after the incident, explaining the officers’ actions.
The police department said when officers arrived at the home, they were told Whitfield was “having a psychosis.” They claimed they found him walking around the home, unclothed, sweating and bleeding from the mouth.
As they were trying to deescalate the situation, they said Whitfield “moved quickly towards an officer.” and the officer fired his Taser in response.
Gladys and Herman Whitfield say they are still trying to understand what happened.
“My family has been in Marion County since at least the 1940s, paying taxes and supporting the community and working,” Gladys said. “We thought we were availing ourselves of services that they provide and then they killed our son. I’m just very disappointed and sad about what happened. I couldn’t be more sad.”
Cruz, a family friend, received a phone call from the Whitfields at 5:30 a.m. on the day of the incident.
After their son was taken to the hospital, the Whitfields were detained in their home by the police and were not allowed to follow their son to the Community East Hospital, Cruz said. Eventually, the couple ran into the garage, got into their car and, although the police were knocking on the back window to try to prevent them from leaving, were able to drive away.
However, Cruz said, once the Whitfields arrived at the hospital, medical personnel would not allow them to see their son. So they returned to their home and called Cruz.
When the attorney arrived about 7:30 a.m., the Whitfields were outside, waiting to be allowed to enter their home. Police were barring them from entry while a search warrant was executed.
“The Whitfields stayed in their car while (the police) executed the search warrant,” Cruz said. “We were fully cooperative.”
They were able to get permission from a deputy chief to leave and go to the hospital to see Herman Whitfield III. By the time the Whitfields arrived, their son had already died.
Cruz said the family wants to make sure another family does not lose a child as they did.
“What the Whitfields are looking for is change in the protocol of IMPD and how it deals with mental health and individuals who are in crisis,” Cruz said. “That’s what they’re looking for foremost.”