Officer William Whitfield, 37, was shot by an unknown gunman on Sunday, June 18, 1922, in an alley just west of 3600 North College Avenue shortly after 11:00 pm. Officer Whitfield was taken to City hospital where he lingered near death for several months. He died on November 27, 1922.
Officer Whitfield had recently been assigned in civilian clothes to work the north side area. He attempted to stop and question an unidentified white male in the first alley west of College on 36th Street when the incident occurred.
Officer Whitfield could tell little of the shooting. He said a man who was roughly dressed approached him. Officer Whitfield called to the man and informed him that he was a policeman, pulling back his coat to display his badge. When ordered to stop, the man ran. Officer Whitfield pursued on foot. After running only a short distance, the man turned, pulled a revolver and fired. Officer Whitfield returned fire, but the suspect fled and disappeared.
Struck by a bullet in the abdomen, Officer Whitfield fell onto the sidewalk. Struggling to his feet, he walked to 36th and College where he stopped a street car crew who notified police. A passerby volunteered to take him to hospital. Officer Whitfield clung to life for 21 weeks, succumbing to his injuries on November 27. His death remained virtually unpublished at the time, and he was buried in an unmarked grave at Crown Hill Cemetery.
Officer Whitfield, an African-American, had been a member of the police department since April 1910 and had an exceptionally good record. Having previously been assigned to the predominantly black Indiana Avenue Corridor, Officer Whitfield was newly assigned to the white neighborhood at College and Fairfield, the first black officer to have been so assigned. The assignment was not well received. There is speculation the shooting was racially motivated and not a random act of violence. The case remains unsolved.
In August 1998, a write-up of the circumstances of Officer Whitfield’s death and burial in an unmarked grave appeared in an IPD Newsletter. Inspired by the write-up, members of the police department established a fund to buy a grave marker for the fallen officer. It took three hours to raise the monies needed for the purchase. On November 30, 1998, full honors were given Officer Whitfield in a tribute at Crown Hill Cemetery where the gravestone was dedicated. Hundreds were in attendance on a late, wet, fall day when the rain paused and the sun shone brightly on the ceremony.
A sundial and plaque dedicated to Officer Whitfield also are displayed among the trees and flowers at Watson-McCord Park near 38th and College. Their installation in the park was launched in 2002 by a project initiated by a long-time resident of the neighborhood, Leon Bates, who has dedicated years to researching the death of Officer Whitfield.
Officer Whitfield was the first African-American IPD officer to give his life in the line of duty.
Sources: Sharp,Wayne, Legends in Blue, 2002, 66-67. Indianapolis Star June 19-20, 1922; December 1, 1998; June 27, 2012. Indianapolis Recorder December 4, 1998