June 22, 2022

Lawsuit says man told IMPD officers ‘I can’t breathe’ before death

Gladys Whitfield at a press conference announcing the lawsuit. (Ben Thorp WFYI)

Gladys Whitfield at a press conference announcing the lawsuit. (Ben Thorp WFYI)

The family of an Indianapolis man who died in April after being shot with a taser while in police custody filed a federal lawsuit against the city and six police officers.

Herman Whitfield III died after police responded to his mental health crisis. The wrongful death lawsuit alleges Whitfield, who is Black, called out “I can’t breathe” while being restrained by officers with the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Dept. His father, Herman Whitfield Jr., says he and his wife tried to get him help.

“We called the first responders, who are the people you depend on in these situations and they let us down, drastically,” Whitfield Jr. said during a press conference Wednesday

The 39-year-old Whitfield  was an accomplished pianist in the community and lived with his father and mother who were present at the April 25 incident.  Gladys Whitfiled said their son needed medical attention on that day so she called 911.

“We wanted him to be taken to the hospital,” she said. “When they arrived my husband said ‘where is the ambulance?’”

Whitfield III did not threaten the officers verbally or physically but due to his mental health crisis he did not respond to their orders to put on clothes and leave the house, according to the lawsuit.

Officer Steven Sanchez then tasered Whitfield III.

Body cam video from the officers show Whitfield III "gasping for breath" and telling the officers “I can’t breathe,” according to the lawsuit.

"The officers’ body cam videos show that shortly after Mr. Whitfield cried, 'I can’t breathe, the third time, he did not move or breath at all, yet the officers continued to put weight on him for three to four minutes before medics arrived," the lawsuit states.

Richard Waples, the family attorney, said that police tactic goes against training -- and can lead to suffocation.

Waples says police withheld information from the public about the incident. IMPD initially reported Whitfield lunged at the officer but the footage shows otherwise.

“There was absolutely no need to taser him in the first place, that’s one,” Waples siad, “Two, they didn’t reveal that he had cried out “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe” three times.”

The City of Indianapolis does have a mental health response team called MCAT. It was not on duty during the time of the April incident.

The suit claims force used by the officers  unreasonable, excessive and deadly and that Whitfield III was unarmed and did not threaten officers.

The family said it hopes the lawsuit will lead to changes, such as the city providing 24-7 mental health crisis response and better training for first responders.

IMPD says the body camera video will be released “soon”.

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