Monday, April 1, 2013

The death of Robert Ethan Saylor: Why it matters to all of us


Among the worries special needs parents have about the future, kids having a brush with the law usually isn't one of them. For me, that changed with the death of Robert Ethan Saylor, a 26-year-old man with Down syndrome—and when, last week, a grand jury in Maryland opted not to bring criminal charges against the police deputies involved. Suddenly, even as the Down syndrome community exploded with outrage, it became painfully clear just how unprotected and defenseless people with special needs can be.


Saylor, as it's now well known, was at a movie theater with an aide on January 13. He wanted to see Zero Dark Thirty again; she went to get the car. When theater staffers told him to leave he refused and soon, three police deputies showed up. When he resisted their attempts to remove him, they handcuffed him on his stomach on the ground. He quickly went into distress and died of asphyxiation. By several accounts, he'd called out for his mother.

A report ruled that Down syndrome and obesity made Saylor more susceptible to breathing problems. Once his death was deemed a homicide, parents of children with Down syndrome started calling the sheriff's office, expressing concern. Advocacy groups spoke out. After the deputies were not charged with a crime, the National Down Syndrome Society met with the U.S. Justice Department of Justice. The press release issued spoke of the necessity for first-responder training guidelines for individuals with Down syndrome. It did not mention the need for an independent investigation into why an innocent man died.

There is a Change.org petition you can sign demanding justice for Robert Saylor. You can speak your mind on the National Down Syndrome Society Facebook page. Meriah of With A Little Moxie shares form letters you can send to the U.S. Department of Justice and Attorney General of Maryland demanding an investigation.

Perhaps the next time you have dealings with your local police precinct you can ask what training exists for individuals with special needs, and share the story of Robert Saylor. I doubt that law enforcement officials around the country typically get much training, if at all, for dealing with any individuals with special needs.

If you're the parent of a kid with special needs, or an individual with them, you're aware of the terrifying possibilities: A person with autism might unintentionally seem suspicious or oppositional when, in fact, he is just afraid or unable to communicate. A person with cerebral palsy might not be able to respond to authorities in a clear way; handcuffing him could cause serious pain and even injury. Max's arms are typically so stiff he can't even turn them so they face upward, let alone put them behind his back. A person with Down syndrome—one of significant size, as Robert Saylor was—might become anxious and act out in response.

No matter what diagnosis your child has, this should raise alarm bells. Because an innocent man with special needs died, because justice is turning its back on the case and because the very people whose job it is to keep Americans safe seemingly don't know how to protect the most vulnerable among us.

Sign the petition. Speak out. Help ensure that Robert Ethan Saylor's homicide is investigated—and that he did not die in vain.


Image: Flickr/Peter Castleton; Robert Ethan Saylor, screen grab, ABC News

23 comments:

  1. Thank you for sharing this Ellen! Well said! This incident has produced anxiety in my own life- now adding to my already long list of things I need to "help Bethany understand" before I let her out of my sight :( You are spot on- this affects us all- Thank you for giving such concrete, constructive actions to go forward with this instead of just marinating in the feelings. Blessings!

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  2. Oh, yes - outrage barely begins to cover it.
    I went thru LAPD academy & am about as pro-law enforcement as they come, but this was a "confrontation" over a movie seat - that they were unable to maintain control, or de-escalate, or use a reasoned, patient, proportionate response makes them wholly unfit to carry a gun or a badge. Think of all the potential situations involving surly teenagers or angry minority being patted down once too many times...
    I rarely do toot my own horn, but I have a letter on my blog along with ALL the addresses and contact links I could find. The letter expresses a little more moral outrage & cites the US Federal hate crimes statute (which includes people with disabilities) and the code on abuse under the color of authority. Permission to cut & paste is given.

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  3. I'm so glad you're speaking out on this. And agree with KRLR.

    The next showing of this movie was more important than this man's life?

    There were soooooooo many options other than the aggressive ones they took. Wait for his worker. Wait for his mom. Shut that particular theatre down for 30 minutes. Try to understand this man.

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    1. Signed the petion. I am a 30 year old deaf woman. If for what ever reason I was without my mom/dad/sister/brother in law/friend/whoever for even a minute and someone told me to leave I wouldnot be able to hear them. I would probaley sign rapidly which some people may interpet as violence. In addtion I have EE and use a feeding pump so if I was forced onto my stomach forcefully it could have negative consequences. Rest In Peace Robert Ethan Saylor and may justice be served.

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  4. Thank you for helping keep the focus on this unnecessary death!

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  5. Thanks for this blog post, Ellen. There is a GREAT need for training for the law enforcement community. My son Marcus has a right spastic hemiplegia and his right arm is VERY contracted and spastic. He once had a confrontation with our crazy police department in the little suburban town we lived in (too long to get into) and the officer wound up shoving Marcus against a wall and cuffing his arms behind his back, which resulted in a painful sprain in his shoulder. And of course I live in great fear of the possibility of a confrontation between the police and my son Gabriel, who has schizophrenia. You have only to look at the horrifying case of Kelly Thomas in California, a schizophrenic homeless man, who was tasered five times and beaten so severely that his face wasn't even recognizable as a face and who died at the hands of 6 police officers. We MUST have better training and accountability.

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  6. I meant to write, "any minority angry being patted down once too many times...", not 'angry minority'. That sounded awful!

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  7. I wholeheartedly agree that there are needed national standards for law enforcement for dealing with those with disabilities. This is a tragedy that it played out the way it did.

    However. The prosecutor did bring the case before the grand jury. If the Change.org petition indicated any wrongdoing by the prosecutor (who is independent of the Sheriff's office) I would sign it. But under the facts I have now. No. Bringing the case to a Grand Jury is how one gets justice. If the Grand Jury refuses to bring charges we have to accept that as part of our system of justice. Unless there was actual evidence of prosecutorial misconduct.

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  8. Anonymous, the Sheriff's office that did the investigation is the same office that employs these three officers. That's why there needs to be an independent investigation. Period.
    Ellen, thank you so much for writing this

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    1. Exactly. We are calling for an independent investigation. That is fair and just.

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  9. Thank you for this. I have been writing emails and blogs and talking to anyone who will listen about this. This is a human issue, not just a Down syndrome or special needs issue. Ethan was a human being that deserved more.

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  10. Yes,the case went before the grand jury, which in MD is held in secret. According to the prosecutor there were 17 witnesses from the theater whose statements were presented.

    However, the only live testimony was from the ME office, the three Frederick County deputies who were the TARGET of the investigation, and the investigator, who is ALSO a Frederick County deputy.

    We are left to assume that there were NO OTHER EYEWITNESSES THERE to corroborate or challenge the deputies' version of events.

    The prosecutor's statement focused more on the "contributory" factors that made him more likely to die in a stressful situation, such as Downs syndrome and obesity. It was also emphasized that the officers "did not punch or kick", which was never alleged anyway. The prosecutor quoted the coroner's manner and cause of death (ASPHYXIA, HOMICIDE)but did not offer any reasons WHY THIS DID NOT RESULT IN ANY CHARGES.

    To me this smacks of conflict of interest, coverup, and smalltown officials who don't even TRY to make it look impartial.

    Please support the call for an INDEPENDENT investigation!

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  11. A Prosecutor who brings a case before a grand jury does not have the authority to decide if charges will be brought. Only the Grand Jury (made up of ordinary independent citizens) can do that. He cannot say "why" the jury did not decide to bring changes. That is the jury's job. If the Prosecutor had decided not to bring the case to the Grand Jury because of the investigation I would agree, but that is not what happened. The investigation caused the prosecutor to decide to bring the case to the Grand Jury and those independent citizens refused to bring charges.

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  12. As I understand MD law the prosecutor does have authority to bring charges himself or to send it to the grand jury.

    In any case he has control over what is presented and how it is presented, therefore he has a great deal of influence. For example a stack of witness statements may not carry as much weight in the jurors' eyes as those same witnesses in person, where their appearance, emotions, and body language could say much more than just words on a page could. They could also be questioned about any discrepancies in testimony between different witnesses.

    The fact that only some of the eyewitnesses were called (who all happen to be the potential defendants) and none of the civilian witnesses doesn't really sound impartial does it? The aide would have had a unique perstpective on the events, why wasn't she called?

    What's the old line about a DA being able to get a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich if he wanted to? It sure looks like the deputies got a break on this one.

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  13. I shared this with my 600+ facebook friends, most of whom have children with various disabilities, asking them all to read and sign. The thing I would not have understood before I had children with disabilities is this: Most people look at this picture and see a giant man. A giant man who is unpredictable. He wasn't a man, though, in his heart, mind, and soul he was a little boy. A little boy who didn't know why the scary policemen were crushing him.

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    1. Yeah. Why did they even attack him? He's not a criminal. He's an unsuspecting person that was treated as a criminal.

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  14. Thank you for bringing this to the attention of so many others. My daughter has Down syndrome and our community has been in an uproar over this. Many of us, like my blogging buddy krlr, have been writing letters and speaking out. We feel as though we are not being heard. We also feel, as you mentioned, that this needs to be addressed by all people. That this can affect those with autism, CP, and other various disabilities.

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  15. The really scary thing is that the Huffington Post is now reporting that he had anger issues. Wonder if they determined that when he was crying for his mommy. Really awful how the press has made this a national story.
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/26/robert-ethan-saylor_n_2958777.html

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  16. It is indeed a tragic story.

    But I'm not sure that the officers were therefore necessarily at fault. I don't think it's clear that they "surely" must have realized he had Down syndrome, or an intellectual disability. Looking at photos of Robert Saylor available on Google images, his facial features are rather ambiguous for Down syndrome, perhaps due to his obesity.

    And the difference between having an intellectual disability and being chemically impaired might be invisible to the naked eye. I'm sure most of the times the cops deal with someone refusing to leave a business upon request, it's drugs, alcohol, or both behind their truculence.

    Also, he was sitting in a theater showing 'Zero Dark Thirty', an R-rated movie. This isn't a movie that you'd expect someone with a intellectual disability who is "just a little boy inside" to be watching. In the wake of the Aurora shooting, is it completely surprising that the police deputies assumed he was a drug addict or mental patient, and thus potentially capable of violence?

    I WOULD like to know why they left him in a position which their own training manuals warned against. An independent investigation into that is warranted.

    However, it may turn out to be nothing more than that he was too heavy for them to get him up again immediately. If they had to use three sets of handcuffs on him because of his size, that's a possibility. In fact, just the time required to rig the cuffs may account for the length of time he was down on his belly.

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    1. "his facial features are rather ambiguous for Down syndrome, perhaps due to his obesity." 

      Fair enough but debatable. He seems fairly easily identifiable as downs to me. Also, his looks weren't the only thing the officers had to go by; seeing his actions in person would have likely gave more clues. Also I'm not seeing how his obesity has anything to do with his facial features seeming ambiguous.

      "And the difference between having an intellectual disability and being chemically impaired might be invisible to the naked eye."

      Again, fair enough but it doesn't take much to know the difference as an average citizen, not to mention these weren't your average people, these were police officers. I feel as if police officers would (or should) have been able to easily identify him as mentally disabled by his looks and if not, at least from his persona.

      “I'm sure most of the times the cops deal with someone refusing to leave a business upon request, it's drugs, alcohol, or both behind their truculence.”

      Even if the officers suspected him of drugs, alcohol or both this doesn't justify their actions.

      "Also, he was sitting in a theater showing 'Zero Dark Thirty', an R-rated movie. This isn't a movie that you'd expect someone with a intellectual disability who is "just a little boy inside" to be watching. In the wake of the Aurora shooting, is it completely surprising that the police deputies assumed he was a drug addict or mental patient, and thus potentially capable of violence?"

      None of these factors should be influencing an officers decision. I'm not quite sure how this is related to the Aurora shooting either. I could be wrong but it seems to me like you're trying to justify these officers mistake because of his size/looks, recent events and the movie he was watching? I hope I'm wrong...

      "I WOULD like to know why they left him in a position which their own training manuals warned against. An independent investigation into that is warranted."

      So would I, but I also believe there's much more to be privately investigated then having him cuffed and left faced down.

      "However, it may turn out to be nothing more than that he was too heavy for them to get him up again immediately. If they had to use three sets of handcuffs on him because of his size, that's a possibility. In fact, just the time required to rig the cuffs may account for the length of time he was down on his belly."

      Again, not quite sure what you're getting at, this just seems like more justification for a huge mistake made by these officers. I believe training in positional asphyxiation for these police officer would have been crucial to saving this young mans life. These officers obviously did not receive training in this area or if they did they didn't apply it in this situation. Unfortunately some people don't have it in them to deal with anyone who is in anyway “different”, or they just don't want to. This story is tragic and preventable.

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  17. Hi there! I'm glad you are speaking out about this! This case needs more attention and the "officers" need to be retried and convicted of murder because even with education about people with special needs, what would stop these horrible officers from doing this again? I have an older brother with down syndrome and live in Maryland. When I first heard about this case, I was very angry. Those police only got away it because of their status. But Karma's gonna get them!

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  18. I just now read this post, linked from another. The issues here sure do resonate even more now, don't they ... after Ferguson and Staten Island. Different issues and possible prejudices in these cases of course, but I was especially struck by the grand jury procedures. Instead of looking for evidence that a trial should be held to determine the truth, they just decided to determine the truth themselves. And the "prosecutors" seemed inclined to assume that they were all tragic misunderstandings, and nothing more.

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Thanks for sharing!



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