A man tased during a mental health crisis died in custody. Advocates say that raises questions.

Photos by Michelle Pemberton | Indy Star

By Lawrence Andrea | Indianapolis Star

Who called police?

What kind of response was requested?

Where was IMPD’s mental health crisis team?

These are a few of the questions some in the Indianapolis community were left to ponder a day after a 39-year-old Black man died after he was tased by police during an apparent mental health crisis inside a northeast Indianapolis home Monday morning.

The man’s father, police said, told officers his son was “having a psychosis.” He asked for an ambulance. The man was large, officials noted, and wandering about the home naked and sweating. When he “moved quickly towards an officer,” police said, the officer tased him twice, and the man was eventually handcuffed. 

By the time medics entered the home, the man was unresponsive. 

Advocates on Tuesday told IndyStar the man’s death is representative of what they call Indianapolis’ failure to properly respond to mental health situations in the community. While city officials have made strides over the years to address mental health-related issues, some argue Monday’s case underscores the need for a different response to calls for help involving mental health.

“These are the type of things that we have been saying, if we don’t get this, this is what happens,” Josh Riddick, a community organizer for advocacy group Faith In Indiana, said of a different approach to mental health situations. “If the city doesn’t prioritize this, this is what happens.”

“Depending on how that call came through,” Riddick added of Monday’s death, “(it’s) evident that our system over-emphasizes law enforcement as a response to everything.”

Indianapolis Metropolitan Police on Tuesday afternoon did not answer a list of questions from IndyStar about their response to the situation, including who called police and who responded to the scene.

Man tased, handcuffed before death

Law enforcement officials said officers “responded to a disturbance” at the home in the 3700 block of Marrison Place about 3:20 a.m. Monday.

They encountered the man, later identified as Herman Whitfield III, and his parents inside the house, according to a news release. Whitfield’s father reportedly told officers his son was “having a psychosis” and needed an ambulance.

Officers called an ambulance, police said in the release, and noted Whitfield — described as 6 foot 2 inches and 280 pounds — “was moving around the home, naked and sweating.” He was bleeding from his mouth. 

“The man moved to areas of the home where officers lost sight of him several times,” police said. “After more than 10 minutes of officers negotiating and using de-escalation tactics, the man moved quickly towards an officer. The officer deployed his electronic control device, more commonly known as a taser, striking the man in the chest with at least one of the two prongs.”

The officer “activated the taser twice,” police said, and Whitfield continued to resist. “Due to the man’s size, officers placed him in two pair of linked handcuffs, which typically provides more comfort to larger individuals,” they added.

Once police deemed the scene safe, medics entered and asked Whitfield to roll over, police said. Whitfield was unresponsive, and officers took off the man’s handcuffs and began performing CPR. 

He was taken to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead shortly after arriving. 

Police did not say how much time had passed between when Whitfield was tased and when he was reported to be unresponsive. It is also not clear what, if any, other restraints were used to detain the man. 

The officers involved in the arrest have been put on administrative leave, per department policy. Both IMPD’s Critical Incident Response Team and Internal Affairs are investigating the case. 

The Marion County Coroner told IndyStar the office had not completed Whitfield’s autopsy Tuesday afternoon.  

‘We need greater availability’

Whitfield’s death comes over a month after Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett pledged to begin developing a plan for a clinician-led mobile crisis response team.

In fact, during his speech at the time, Hogsett said the city’s new Community Justice Campus was “built around the premise that jails are not hospitals and police are not doctors.”

“Our thoughts are with the friends and family of the individual who died on Monday morning,” Hogsett said in a statement. “Yesterday’s events only strengthen our resolve to continue working with the community on this critical issue.”

Riddick, whose group was behind the push for the new team, has argued police are not the appropriate people to respond to health-related situations. Rather, people would benefit from a team trained specifically in dealing with mental health and substance crises. 

Words like “de-escalation” are vague, Riddick told IndyStar Tuesday, and the scant details released by police about Monday’s death leave pending questions about their response to the situation. 

IMPD in recent years has updated its response to mental health crises. Since 2017, the department has used specialized Mobile Crisis Assistant Teams, or MCATs, consisting of an officer trained on crisis intervention and a clinician, to respond to certain situations. 

But those teams would not have been able to help Monday — they only operate on weekdays between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m.

That detail alone exemplifies a “lack of commitment” from city officials to address mental health issues, said Pastor David Greene, president of the civil rights group Concerned Clergy of Indianapolis.

“You got this one little narrow window,” Greene said, referencing the MCATs. “Well, that’s not the only time you’re going to have mental health issues. So we need greater availability, a commitment to it.”

For others, Whitfield’s death emphasizes the importance of a continued conversation about mental health.

“We need to deal with mental health beyond the buzzwords,” said Hovey Street Church of Christ Pastor Denell Howard. “We need intentional, consistent, purposeful conversations and real dialogue about how to rightfully impact the lives of those struggling with mental health.”

Howard, who says he has hosted talks and workshops surrounding mental health with his congregation for the past 10 years, said those conversations are particularly important in the Black community, who has had to deal with “racially-based trauma.” 

“We’ve got to move beyond the rhetoric,” Howard said.

‘Musical genius’

A knock on the Marrison Place home’s door Monday morning was answered by someone who said they had “nothing to say” about the previous morning’s events.

Few details were immediately available about Whitfield and who he was. A Facebook post from a relative Tuesday called the 39-year-old the “family’s pianist/musical genius.”

Neighbors on Marrison Place on Tuesday morning described the area as a “very quiet” place where neighbors are friendly. Some noted they often wave to Whitfield’s family when they see them outside. 

“They’re great people,” said one neighbor, who wished not to be named out of respect for the family. “They’re very nice, very sweet to us.”

Still, advocates in Indianapolis say they are waiting for change.

“We need to be prepared,” said Greene of the Concerned Clergy. “We know mental health is an issue, so these type of issues aren’t going away.”

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