Mom of Man with Down syndrome talks about his death in Maryland Cinema
by Jeremy Meyer from The Denver Post:
Ethan Saylor simply wanted to see a movie one more time.
The Frederick, Md., man had just watched "Zero Dark Thirty" in a theater inside a mall and wanted to see it again.
Saylor, 26, had Down syndrome — a genetic condition that impairs physical growth and intelligence. His condition was likely apparent to the off-duty sheriff's deputies working at the mall on Jan. 12 who were called to remove Saylor because he hadn't paid for another ticket. But those deputies clearly didn't know how to help Saylor work through the issue.
Saylor's aide told them to wait it out. His mother was on the way and he just needed some time. She warned them not to touch Saylor, who could quickly become agitated.
Saylor's mother now believes her son was desperately trying to use his iPhone to figure out how to buy another movie ticket. He didn't carry cash. "I see there were four 4-1-1 calls," said his mother Patti Saylor, who on Saturday gave a presentation to the National Down Syndrome Congress' convention that was held this year in Denver. Saylor talked about how law enforcement agencies must learn how to defuse potentially traumatic and tragic situations with people with disabilities. "He was trying to work something out — buy a ticket or get a ride home or both," said Saylor in a recent phone interview from her Maryland home. "No else would have known that is what he was doing. He didn't have the language to explain himself."
What happened next made national headlines.
One officer grabbed Saylor, who was sitting in a theater seat, according to the incident report released to the family on Monday. That set Saylor off, who cursed and pushed one deputy away. Officers pounced on the 294-pound man, picked him up and dragged him toward the exit. Saylor went to the ground on his chest with three deputies above him. "Ouch!" "Don't touch me!" "I need help, Mommy," Saylor cried, according to witnesses. Deputies strapped three sets of handcuffs around his back. Then Saylor went silent and stopped breathing. The officers turned him over and tried to resuscitate him. An autopsy would later show his larynx had been crushed and he died by suffocation. The medical examiner ruled Saylor's death a homicide. "I was five minutes away from the theater when I was called and told to go to the hospital," his mother told The Denver Post in one of the first media interviews she has granted since the Jan. 12 incident.
In the months after Saylor's death, a grand jury cleared the three officers of wrongdoing. Last week, Frederick County released the evidence of the case to his family, who has retained an attorney. The case has inflamed disability groups, who have started online petitions to demand "Justice for Ethan."
"This is a very important case," said David Tolleson, executive director of the National Down Syndrome Congress, who has petitioned the state of Maryland and the U.S. Justice Department to launch an investigation. His organization also is working with the ARC of the United States to develop training modules for law enforcement agencies.
Advancements for people with disabilities have created more opportunities for inclusion in society, which means more people with disabilities are more likely to be "out in the community," Tolleson said.
It is critical that law enforcement agencies learn strategies on how to "support, serve and protect" people with disabilities, Tolleson said.
Tolleson has a son with autism and went to a theater with him recently and saw what could happen. As his son John waited for his father to come out of the bathroom, an off-duty police officer followed John around the lobby. Tolleson's son was walking on his tiptoes and flapping his hands.
"It sent a chill down my spine because of what happened to Ethan," he said. "If (the officer) would have put a hand on John , he would have clammed up, could have started hitting himself. The officer could have restrained him. It really hit home. After years of working on inclusion ... now if you want to go out and want to see a movie, be part of the community, is your life in danger because you look different and act different?"
Denver Police years ago started a program to train officers on intervention when dealing with people in crisis. In 2003, after police shot and killed 15-year-old Paul Childs, who had a developmental disability, police began training even more officers in the program. Now, every officer out of the Denver police academy receives 40 hours of training, including a one-day visit to a facility with people with developmental disabilities, said Sgt. Betty Hale. "A lot of it is about communication and recognizing what the situation is and responding appropriately," Hale said.
Darla Stuart, director of The Arc of Aurora, has been training law enforcement agencies since 2007 on how to communicate with people with intellectual disabilities. Her group even hands out cards for officers to carry that gives tips on how to communicate. "People with intellectual disabilities may behave in a certain way that feels aggressive or noncompliant," she said. "Officers need to have training on how to best communicate and cope with those behaviors because they are really just processing issues."
"If there is some great legacy that we can share out of (Saylor's) death, that training is needed, then maybe his death is not without some merit," Stuart said.
Ethan's mother, Patti Saylor, said she loves nothing more than talking about her son. He was a bundle of love, always smiling, always wanting to tell people he loved them. He was a fan of reggae music, a devout Christian and a huge fan of the police who kept a large collection of police badges and caps.
But he also struggled, she said.
"He experienced this world as frustrating," she said. "He would always get frustrated trying to get his point across."
Saylor said she is working through Maryland legislators to introduce a bill that would mandate training for law enforcement agencies. "We need to do training but that is not the fix," she said. "There must be relationships so people can realize that people with Down syndrome or autism are people first. We need to break down that fear, the myths. No training will matter if we don't get rid of some of these stereotypes." Jeremy P. Meyer: 303-954-1367, firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/jpmeyerdpost