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Indy musicians mourn performer who died in IMPD custody

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — Many Indianapolis musicians are mourning after a fellow performer died while in police custody on Monday.

An investigation into the man’s cause of death in underway.

Friends and colleagues of Herman Whitfield III said he was a world-renowned performer and composer. Many said his death is shocking and upsetting. They are calling for change when it comes to how police respond to people with mental health issues.

Joshua Thompson grew up playing alongside Whitfield. While they were colleagues and in some ways competitors, Thompson admits he had great admiration for Whitfield.

“I think it was ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ with Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. He might have been 17 and just blew everyone away. It was just a joy to watch him. So, to be able to follow him throughout life as we would get older, it was always a pride thing and fun thing, like ‘I know him,’” Thompson said.

Thompson and many others are trying to come to terms with a world without Whitfield.

“Herman. There’s not gonna be another Herman. The world’s not getting another one,” Thompson said.

Indianapolis police said Whitfield died while in their custody on Monday. Officers responded to a disturbance where, they say, Whitfield’s father said his son was having a psychosis and asked for an ambulance.

Police say Whitfield was walking around the house when he moved toward an officer. That officer deployed his Taser twice. Whitfield was then put in handcuffs. When medics asked him to roll over, he did not respond.

He was later died at a hospital.

“Mental health shouldn’t be criminal, and reaching out for help shouldn’t be fatal,” Thompson said.

Thompson, who spent several years working as a mental health professional, says something has to change. “This is an opportunity where crisis intervention training for law enforcement is taken seriously, is done more frequently, is done in tandem with mental health professionals on the job, on the scene.”

The Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department has a Mobile Crisis Assistance Team, sometimes called MCAT. However, its members don’t work 24/7, and IMPD’s news release on the incident did not list MCAT as a responding team in Whitfield’s case.

In a statement, Indy Black Lives Matter said, “A shift must begin to engage deep care of community in crisis: ensuring that they have adequate support for their mental health needs, that there are competent providers responding to those in crisis, and that the means to supply and exceed these needs is not excused away as a lack of financial resources.”

Thompson said, “He was a world class musician, who lived with a mental illness, and even despite that was able to make such huge impact. Describe him that way, and then I think we begin to get closer to strategies that are effective for everyone.”

IMPD has an administrative investigation underway. Police said several officers were wearing body cameras.

The Marion County Coroner’s Office is investigating Whitfield’s cause of death. The coroner by Wednesday did not have the results from Whitfield’s autopsy.