The family of an Indianapolis man who was suffering from a mental health crisis when he died while being restrained by police is demanding answers amid a wrongful death lawsuit.
‘I can’t breathe,’ a phrase often associated with Black men killed by police, hits close to home for Rich Waples, the attorney representing the family of Herman Whitfield III.
“They should have got him up right away, but certainly when they hear him say, I can’t breathe, and he said it at least three times,” said Waples.
The family of Herman Whitfield III, 39, filed a wrongful death lawsuit filed on June 22, 2022, against the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department and the six police officers who are accused of killing Whitfield.
“He wasn’t threatening them or himself and he didn’t have any weapons, he wasn’t aggressive or combative at all,” said Waples.
Herman Whitfield III was known to be a talented pianist, but on April 25, 2022, his life and that of his family took an unexpected turn. While at their home in Indianapolis, Indiana, Whitfield III, experienced a mental health crisis and his parents, Gladys and Herman Whitfield Jr. called for help.
During Gladys Whitfield’s 911 all, Herman Whitfield III can be heard in the background screaming. According to police, once they arrived at the home, Herman’s father requested an ambulance. Bodycam video shows the officers greeting the Whitfield family and observing Herman Whitfield III still experiencing a mental health crisis. He appears naked before one of the officers who asked to talk to him. Whitfield III and the officers have a calm verbal exchange for about 10 minutes, but Waples says Whitfield III was not fully comprehending what the officers were saying to him or exactly what was going on around him.
Bodycam video continues to show Whitfield, who starts wandering to several rooms within the home and eventually went into the dining room where he’s heard tossing and throwing metal items that sounded like pots or pans. One of the officers say to him, “hey put that down, stop picking stuff up.”
“He really wasn’t comprehending what was going on, and they decided to use force, tased him, they got on top of him and cuffed him behind his back, he’s down in a prone position with his body face down,” Waples said of the ongoing situation.
As Whitfield III continued tossing items in the dining room, one of the officers deployed a taser onto Whitfield III who immediately begins screaming and begs the officers to stop. Several minutes into the encounter, Whitfield III can be heard screaming, ‘I can’t breathe.’
According to the lawsuit, the officers are accused of ignoring Whitfield’s pleas to breathe and continued to put their weight on top of him for three to four minutes until medics arrived, when he was found unresponsive and later died from, “cardiopulmonary arrest in the setting of law enforcement subdual, prone restraint and conducted electrical weapon use” according to the coroner’s office. On July 20, 2022, the coroner’s office ruled Whitfield’s death a homicide.
“We think it’s a very strong case of excessive force, use of deadly force by police officers here,” Waples said.
The family’s wrongful death lawsuit alleges excessive force and calls for punitive and compensatory damages although a specific dollar amount has not been requested. Waples says, the family also wants the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department to handle calls for mental health crisis better going forward.
“We just need to fight back and say wait a minute, we need to have different responses to people undergoing mental health crisis we need to have professionals come in and help them,” Waples said.
Atlanta Black Star sought comment from the Indianapolis Police Department on the lawsuit filed against them but did not hear back. The Marion County Prosecutor’s Office confirmed it is still investigating the case and upon its conclusion it will determine if the six officers involved will face criminal charges.
Waples said the family wants to, “push the city into recognizing what they did was wrong and dealing with their own officers is what they ought to do and try to make it better for the future, so this doesn’t happen again.”