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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Alsia T.
Past Member 3 years ago

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Cat L.
John roll4 years ago

Folks need to ease up on the aide! She was probably a high school kid scared out of her wits seeing three uniformed goons pile on and handcuff her client while his mom was getting the car. What the heck was she supposed to do - call 911? The police were already there! Make a citizen's arrest? Fight them off herself? We have 20/20 hindsight, but try to imagine yourself in her shoes for a second. But let's put the responsibility for this young man's death where it belongs - squarely in the lap of these 3 officers.

Kathy Perez
Kathy Johnson4 years ago

how very sad

Sharon R.
Sharon R5 years ago

I agree that the aide's position could use some clarifying. He was the one who should have known to call in the parent or offer to buy more tickets or something. The sherriffs were called in unnecessarily, it seems, but they seem to have tried to deal with the problem non-violently by simply handcuffing the boy to evict him. It's not clear to me how handcuffing him led to his death.

faith v.
faith v5 years ago

Kimberly, the country has been a police state for a very long time.

Kimberly Z.
Leo Zemke5 years ago

our country is becoming a police state, in the old days everyone would have laughed it off and the kindly theater owner would have allowed the boy to stay and watch the movie again and again but these days theaters are owned by GREEDY corporations and employees are like the STASI and must get that ticket money or they call the police!!!! Its insane what happened to poor Sayler I say arrest the officers and put them in jail for MURDER!!!!!

Past Member
Past Member 5 years ago

no amount of training will cure LEOs of their arrogance. The way these three deputies handled the situation was WRONG, and they should admit it, resign and find another line of work, since they are not fit to be even mall cops.

Pat M.
Patricia M5 years ago

I worked with people like this young man for decades and they are so sweet. All someone had to do WAS buy another ticket!!!!! and call his mom!!!! it is obvious he was mentally challenged!!! What is WRONG with our society?????

Magda V.
Past Member 5 years ago


Mary L.
Mary L5 years ago

I have to add my voice to others on the board, where was the aide? Why didn't someone just buy another ticket?

How did this get so out of control?