Black clergy call for release of body camera footage of Herman Whitfield III’s death while in custody

By Sarah Nelson | IndyStar

Members of Indianapolis’ Black Church Coalition is calling for the city’s police department to release the full, unedited body camera footage capturing the fatal encounter between officers and Herman Whitfield III, who died in April during an apparent mental health crisis.  

“We are asking for the unedited, complete, raw footage of the incident that led to the tragic death of Herman Whitfield III,” said Pastor Carlos Perkins, of Bethel Cathedral A.M.E. Church.  

Whitfield, 39, died April 25 inside his parent’s home in northeast Indianapolis after being tased by an Indianapolis Metropolitan Police officer during an apparent mental health crisis. His parents called 911 and told arriving officers he needed an ambulance. Police said Whitfield was moving throughout the house naked and was tased when he “moved quickly” toward an officer. 

The Black Church Coalition’s request comes days after Whitfield’s family in a news conference announced the filing of a federal wrongful death lawsuit against the city and several police officers. The suit called police’s use of force against the pianist unreasonable, excessive and deadly.  

The attorneys representing Whitfield’s family also called for the public release of the footage from the body cameras worn by the five officers and one recruit trainee who responded to the home in the early morning hours of April 25. Indianapolis-based attorneys Richard Waples and Israel Nunez Cruz said they’ve reviewed the footage and it refutes the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department’s account about what happened during the encounter.  

The Black Church Coalition told IndyStar they are siding with the family in that request.  

The Indianapolis police department said Friday morning it would not comment on the issue because, “out of respect for the judicial process, we do not comment on pending litigation.”

The critical incident video, which includes body camera footage, will be released soon, a department spokesperson said.

According to police, the officers who responded to the home found Whitfield roaming the halls and various rooms naked. At one point, he “moved quickly” toward an officer, and he was tased. Whitfield was placed in two pairs of handcuffs behind his back as he lay on his stomach. Shortly after, he became unresponsive. He died at a hospital not long after arriving.  

Waples on Wednesday said the body camera footage shows another story. He said Whitfield told officers three times that he couldn‘t breathe as he was handcuffed on his stomach. By the third time, he became unresponsive.   

Waples also said the footage shows Whitfield did not make an aggressive movement toward the officer, and they had their taser out and pointed already when they deployed it.

On Wednesday, Whitfield’s parents highlighted their son’s musical talent. The Indianapolis native is remembered as a gifted pianist. Herman Whitfield Jr. on Wednesday said his son composed his first symphony at eight or nine years old. He entered the piece into a contest with the Detroit Symphony, competing against college students and professors, and won. 

Whitfield’s death has revived calls from Indianapolis advocates for changes to how the city handles requests for help in times of mental health crises – calling for an approach that does not include police officers. 

The Black Church Coalition and other clergy organizations renewed those calls in May during a news conference by reiterating their demands for a clinician-led mobile crisis response team. 

Indianapolis currently deploys Mobile Crisis Assistant Teams (MCAT) made up of an officer trained on crisis intervention and a clinician who respond to certain situations. Those teams would not have been able to respond to the Whitfield’s home, as they only operate on weekdays from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. 

City officials said they are examining the possibility of a clinician-led team under MCAT that could respond at any hour.  

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