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Coroner rules in-custody death of Herman Whitfield III a homicide

Volunteers with Faith in Indiana hold signs during a vigil for Herman Whitfield III on April 27, 2022, at City Market. Whitfield died April 25 while in police custody.
Tyler Fenwick/Indianapolis Recorder
Volunteers with Faith in Indiana hold signs during a vigil for Herman Whitfield III on April 27, 2022, at City Market. Whitfield died April 25 while in police custody.

Updated at 4:30 p.m. on July 20

The in-custody death of Herman Whitfield III has been ruled a homicide, according to the Marion County Coroner’s Office.

Whitfield, 39, was experiencing a mental heath crisis and died on April 25 after being tased by Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department officers. Body camera footage released last month showed Whitfield yelling “I can’t breathe” repeatedly while being detained by officers.

According to coroner's office, Whitfield’s cause of death is “cardiopulmonary arrest in the setting of law enforcement subdual, prone restraint, and conducted electrical weapon use.” Other contributing factors to Whitfield's death listed on the report were "morbid obesity" and "hypertensive cardiovascular disease."

IMPD said in a statement that the criminal investigation will be completed and presented to the Marion County Prosecutor’s Office by the end of the week for the consideration of criminal charges against the officers. The six officers involved are still working for the department, but are assigned to administrative duties.

Whitfield's family said in a statement provided by their attorney that the coroner's ruling is consistent with what was shown in the body camera footage.

"Mr. Whitfield did not present a danger to the officers, and there was no need to taser him. Moreover, the officers violated their own training by keeping Mr. Whitfield handcuffed face down after he was restrained, and after he had told them he couldn’t breathe, and when he was not moving or breathing, which led to this death ... Mr. Whitfield, who was in his family home, needed professional mental health care, not the use of deadly force."

The family filed a federal lawsuit last month against the department, and are calling for the entirety of the body-camera footage of the incident to be released.

The Indianapolis Fraternal Order of Police said in a statement that the coroner's decision does not mean the officer's actions were criminal in nature.

"To date, there is no allegation of criminal culpability and it’s apparent several contributing factors were involved. Yet the outcome remains tragic nonetheless," the statement reads in part.

The body-worn camera footage

Body-worn camera footage of the incident was released to the public on June 28.It was edited and is not the raw footage. IMPD Chief Randal Taylor said the video was edited for time.

The footage can be viewed here. Warning: The video contains images that some viewers may find disturbing.

The footage begins with a recording of the 911 call. Whitfield’s mother asks for an ambulance to be sent to the 3700 block of Marrison Place at about 3:20 a.m. because her son is having a “mental issue.” Whitfield can be heard yelling in the background of the call. Whitfield's mother says no one in the home is armed.

Officers arrived at the scene, where Whitfield was naked, sweating, and bleeding from the mouth. His figure is mostly blurred in the publicly-released footage. Officers called an ambulance to “stage near the home while the scene was made safe."

MCAT, the Mobile Crisis Assistance Team, was not on-call at the time of the incident.

Officers attempted to calm and prepare Whitfield for the ambulance, and his parents tried to get him dressed. IMPD said Whitfield did not respond to the officers' instructions and moved throughout the home. Whitfield moved from the bedroom toward his parents and an officer who were standing in a hallway.

He then ran into the kitchen and began throwing items, and then moved to the dining room, where an officer deployed a taser, according to IMPD.

“Fire! Fire! Fire!” Whitfield yelled. An officer instructed Whitfield to stay down and not move. Whitfield thrashed on the floor and yelled and police activated the taser a second time.

Each taser activation lasts five seconds and is considered an independent use of force.

Officers detained Whitfield using two sets of handcuffs; and moved him to his stomach in the prone position. A cloth appears to cover his head, and Whitfield can be heard saying “I can’t breathe” multiple times.

Wednesday's statement sent by the Whitfield family attorney reads, "For over twenty-five years, the policing community has agreed that officers should not keep a restrained individual in the prone position because of the significant risk of death."

About three minutes later, officers rolled Whitfield over, but he was unresponsive. The handcuffs were removed and officers began CPR. Whitfield was taken to a local hospital and pronounced dead shortly after arrival.

Calls for action, accountability

Community members are calling for accountabilty andtransparency as the investigation unfolds.

Josh Riddick, an organzier with Faith in Indiana, agreed with the Whitfield family that the entirety of the body-worn camera footage should be released.

"The point of the body cameras is to shape what happened, tell us what happened, show us what the interaction was. And we got snippets of it," Riddick said. "We were promised a level of transparency, that is not being manifested. That is a problem, and it's incongruent with the commitment made to the community."

David Greene, of the Indianapolis Concerned Clergy, said in a press release that the officers involved in the incident should be firedimmediately. He also called for criminal charges to be filed against the officers and for the city to settle the lawsuit filed by the family.

"We want to see progress made in our city for those suffering mental illness who deserve to be protected and served," the statement reads in part.

This story has been updated.

Contact WFYI criminal justice reporter Katrina Pross at Follow on Twitter: @katrina_pross.

Pross is a Corps Member of Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project.

Copyright 2022 WFYI Public Media. To see more, visit WFYI Public Media.

Katrina Pross