INDIANAPOLIS — The recent release of IMPD body camera footage showing the in-custody death of a man suffering from mental health issues has re-ignited community leaders’ push for change.

“People who need help don’t need handcuffs,” said Pastor Darian Bouie, chairman of the Statewide Clergy Team at Faith In Indiana. “I think this situation speaks volumes to the necessity of having the clinician based team working alongside IMPD.”

On Tuesday, Indianapolis Metropolitan Police released body camera footage following the April 2022 death of a man in their custody.

The parents of Herman Whitfield III called 911 on April 25 asking dispatchers for help with their 39-year-old son who was “having some kind of episode.” In the 911 call released by police, Herman Whitfield can be heard screaming in the background as his mother attempts to provide information to a dispatcher.

Police were dispatched to Whitfield’s home around 3:20 a.m., well beyond when IMPD’s Mobile Crisis Assistance Team (MCAT) would usually respond to mental health calls.

“Typically [MCATs] are working from about 7:30 [in the morning] to 6 in the evening, Monday through Friday,” said IMPD Chief Randal Taylor. “That is a group that is trained specifically to work with people who are going through a mental health crisis.”

MCAT consists of nine teams, each with one IMPD officer and one mental health clinician. Both the clinician and the IMPD officer respond to mental health-related calls, but the teams are not available 24/7.

“It’s not difficult for us to get officers that would have an interest in that but are also willing to work those late night hours, or the weekends,” said Chief Taylor. “We can provide the officer, but you have to have a clinician as well. So I don’t think the clinicians are typically used to working those overnight hours.”

MCAT was formed in 2017 and the program is in partnership with Health and Hospital Corporation, which operates Eskenazi Hospital. Chief Taylor said he is open to expanding the MCAT program, either through staffing or hours but said hiring issues continue to be the biggest hurdle.

“The public often talks to us about having someone other than law enforcement respond to mental health crises, and we have no objection to that, but unfortunately there is no one stepping up to take that spot. So if some of those people can be found, and are willing to do that, then we would certainly entertain that idea,” said Chief Taylor.

Faith leaders with Faith in Indiana have been vocal about bringing something new to the table. They are now working with the city to potentially bring in a new, clinician-led response team to Indianapolis. 

“I think the orders should come first from those who have the most experience in that matter,” said Pastor Bouie. “The clinician-led teams need to give the orders to the police as to how to respond so that we can minimize the possibility of escalation.”

According to the Office of Public Health and Safety, Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett agreed to work with community leaders to help secure the money necessary to build out a pilot program for a clinician-led response.

“We don’t have that budget yet, we’re working on that piece right now,” said Lauren Rodriguez, director of the Office of Public Health and Safety. “We’re trying to build the foundation of what it would look like, how we can hire people, what their salaries would be, what are the hours. Because we want to make it 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. So we’re trying to work through that right now.”

Pastor Bouie said he is happy to have the city’s support, but the recent in-custody death amplifies the urgency.

“I love that it’s been greenlit, but now we need it to be executed so that these kinds of things don’t continue to happen,” said Pastor Bouie. “Now it’s a matter of making sure we’re putting our money where our mouth is so to speak, making sure we’re putting boots to the ground, pen to paper – whatever analogy or terminology you want to use for it – this is an issue that requires immediate attention and we’ll know when it’s receiving the attention it deserves because what we’re seeing we’ll no longer see.”