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Indianapolis launches mental health response program; Whitfield family attorney weighs in

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — For the first time, Indianapolis will have a clinician-led community program to respond to nonviolent mental health calls, meaning police won’t be at your door in the event of a mental health crisis.

“The city of Indianapolis and the mental health community are ready for this shift in how we as a city address mental health crisis,” Andrea Brown, the director of operations of the clinician-led crisis response team, said.

The idea for this program was launched in March 2022 by Mayor Joe Hogsett, hoping to improve community access to mental health services. Thanks to a budget of $2 million, this program will focus on helping people in their time of need to keep people away from entering the criminal justice system.

News 8 spoke with the attorney of the family of Herman Whitfield III, who died in IMPD handcuffs in April 2022.

Court papers say Whitfield’s mother had called 911 asking for an ambulance to come to their home and help her and her husband get mental health care for their son, but the police’s response ended in Whitfield’s death.

Rich Waples, an attorney with Waples & Hanger, says the program is a small step forward.

Waples told News 8 that what started as the Whitfield family calling for help for their son ended in the extreme tragedy of his death, and that a clinician response team could have prevented it.

“Because they would have taken the time necessary not just gone to force, which wasn’t even necessary in that instance. These clinician-led teams are necessary. They’re helpful,” he said.

Waples also says that if the program had existed Herman would have probably still died because the incident did not occur during the hours that the response teams will be available in their first stages. 

Waples & Hanger provided this in a statement.

The Whitfield family is encouraged by the City’s Clinician-Led Community Response program. We are as yet unaware of all the details and want to make sure that such teams are available 24-7 and that clinicians are able to lead the teams so that in the future families like the Whitfield’s receive the support they need in times of crisis. The most important objective is to avoid tragedies like what occurred with the death of their son.

Waples & Hanger

According to the Office of Public Health and Safety, there will be four response teams at the city-county building responding to 911 calls. The teams will be comprised of a clinical supervisor, a licensed clinical social worker, and a peer specialist.

The organization Stepping Stone will be responsible for hiring and managing response teams.

“Stepping Stone Therapy Center is here to provide behavioral health services and connect fellow Hoosiers to other community resources as needed,” Brown said.

They’ll work three-day ten-hour shifts depending on the volume of calls. Once the program becomes fully staffed with 36 team members, it will operate 24/7 in the downtown and east IMPD districts.

Stepping Stone says it’s currently training clinicians and anticipates launching teams over the coming weeks. Community leaders say they are excited to get the program started.

“There’s been a tremendous amount of cooperation and collaboration,” Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett said. “I’m very proud. It’s long overdue and much, much needed.”

The program is anticipated to begin July 1st.