Did Police Cause Death of Man With Down Syndrome?
On January 12, 26-year-old Robert Saylor died of asphyxia in an incident that a medical examiner has ruled to be a homicide. Saylor had Down’s Syndrome and had been watching a showing of “Zero Dark Thirty” with an aide in a Maryland movie theater. After the movie ended, he wanted to see the film again and refused to leave his seat. Theater employees summoned three off-duty Frederick County sheriff’s deputies who were working a security job at a nearby shopping center and informed them that Saylor must either buy another ticket or be removed.
As the Washington Post reports,
Cpl. Jennifer Bailey, a spokeswoman for the sheriff’s office, said Saylor cursed at the deputies, who weren’t wearing uniforms, and began hitting and kicking them. The deputies restrained him using three sets of handcuffs linked together and escorted him from the theater. At some point, Saylor ended up on the ground and began showing signs of medical distress. A short while later, he was pronounced dead at a local hospital.
Saylor’s parents, Patti and Ron Saylor, allege that the entire incident was “handled the wrong way from beginning to end.” Patti Saylor could have been contacted; as a lawyer for the family, Joseph Espo, says that “Ethan was developmentally disabled, not a criminal.”
In a terrible irony, Saylor was, says Espo, “entranced” with the police and police departments and would routinely call 911 whenever there was a complaint in his residence. In fact, his mother brought cookies to the local sheriff’s office every year, to thank them for all the unnecessary trips to the house.
Parents of children with Down Syndrome and other disability advocacy groups have had their fears “ignited” in the wake of Saylor’s death. His friends have been mourning his loss, recalling his love of reggae music. One friend, Cam Overs, notes that he knew how to spell the word “satellite” due to “his fascination with satellite photos” and that he was “thrilled” when given a Kevlar vest by Overs’ son, Jonathan, who is in the military.
Saylor’s Death Highlights Need For Police Training
Saylor’s death at the hands of the three deputies is certainly a call for “more and better training” for law enforcement officers. Bailey of the sheriff’s office tells the Washington Post that officers do receive “annual training on the use of force and that all sworn and civilian staff members got training in dealing with people with mental health issues from the Frederick County Health Department in 2011.”
Of course, this is good to know. But Down Syndrome is not a mental health issue and one has to ask how did the situation escalate that the officers handcuffed and used force on a man with developmental disabilities, who might not have had intellectual and other disabilities that would lead to him speaking and responding in unusual ways to them?
There have been some times when we have had to contact emergency personnel when our teenage autistic son Charlie was in crisis. In New Jersey, police officers and other first responders in many communities have received training in how to address situations involving autistic persons. The officers who responded to our calls have taken care not to turn on their sirens and police car lights as these could further agitate an autistic person who is already in distress. One officer even told me he would wait on our porch unless his presence was absolutely needed for Charlie; he told me that, in responding to a previous call involving an autistic child, his entering the house had made things worse.
According to the Washington Post, two law enforcement officials sent a text that that they would miss him; it was read at Saylor’s funeral. It is an understatement to say that Saylor’s death more than reveals the need for ”more and better training” — at the very least — for law enforcement personnel when dealing with individuals with Down Syndrome and other disabilities.
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