Ethan Saylor

Ethan SaylorA vulnerable young man dies following police restraint

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from various sources – May 2017
contributions by – Neelam Bi

Updates on this case are listed at the foot of this item

On 12 January 2011 Robert Ethan Saylor, a 26 year old with Down-syndrome, died in police custody after a dispute over an unpaid movie ticket. Ethan had gone to watch a movie. When the movie was over he briefly left the theatre and then decided to return and see the movie again. The manager called security because he had not paid for the second viewing. Then three off duty deputies, moonlighting at the mall, also came and confronted him.

Referring to Frederick County police statements, Ethan had swore at them and refused to leave. The deputies tried to remove him despite Ethan’s minder’s warnings and pleas for them to wait and let her take care of it. She also told them that his mother, Patti Saylor, was on her way to pay for the second movie ticket. What happened next was initially a little unclear, but witnesses say the deputies put Ethan on the floor, held him down and handcuffed him.

His autopsy concluded the death was a homicide. The cause of death, according to the autopsy, was asphyxiation. The autopsy also said Saylor’s larynx had been damaged. A witness said an officer had put his knee on Saylor’s lower back while Saylor was on his stomach being handcuffed. Despite this, a grand jury failed to indict the deputies and they returned to work without charges.

In December 2014 a grand jury announced that they will not indict the Maryland police officer who had killed Ethan. They felt no further investigation was necessary. Frederick County State’s Attorney J. Charles Smith, said at a news conference just outside the county courthouse, that “no crime had been committed.”

Police justified the killing by explaining that Ethan verbally and physically resisted their attempts to remove him from the theater, and because of his large size, had to use three sets of handcuffs on him and placed him on his stomach for “one to two minutes.” When he showed signs of distress, officers said they administered CPR and other First Aid.

However, back in February 2011, the Chief Medical Examiner’s Office in Baltimore said that Saylor’s death was a homicide resulting from asphyxia.

Ethan’s death generated outrage among parents of children with Down syndrome and advocacy groups across the country and US District Judge William M. Nickerson was just as scathing, writing in his 54-page ruling that “a man died over the cost of a movie ticket.” The Saylor family’s claims that Maryland authorities failed to adequately train the deputies to handle people with disabilities can remain a part of the suit, Nickerson ruled.

The Frederick County sheriff investigated his men’s conduct and ruled they had followed procedure correctly.

Months after Ethan’s death his case began to get more attention. Heather Mizeur, a member of the Maryland House of Representatives and candidate for governor, seized on Saylor’s story and called for new training for law enforcement. Debra Alfarone, an investigative journalist in Washington, began to broadcast and write about the case.

A petition asking Gov. Martin O’Malley to investigate went viral in mid-August 2011, and collected 300,000 signatures in just a week. This petition fuelled a renewed national media narrative.

Dennis Debbaudt trains the police on how to respond to people with intellectual disabilities, and argues that such cases require special tactics. First, he says, law enforcement officers should safeguard that they, bystanders and the person with a disability are all out of danger. If the situation is safe, Debbaudt says, officers need to take all the time that’s necessary to resolve the problem without force. He tells officers that if the person with a disability isn’t “aggressing into the officer’s space,” then there’s generally no good reason to “aggress into theirs.”

It was reported that Ethan’s minder was asking the officers to wait rather than handcuff and arrest him because he hated to be touched. According to both the officers’ and witnesses’ statements, no one seems to have been in danger. A deputy initiated contact only after Saylor swore at them, and witnesses report that the officers remained calm throughout.

In April 2015, State lawmakers approved a proposal to open a Maryland Department of Disabilities alliance named after Ethan Saylor. The alliance would seek to involve developmentally or intellectually disabled people in training law enforcement officers.

Disability advocates had also stressed the importance of relationships between police officers and those who have disabilities.

In August 2015 a new documentary on the death of Ethan Saylor was produced. Ethan’s Law contains accounts from eyewitnesses who claim information they had on the incident was ignored by authorities.


Follow-up News:

Settlement reached in police-custody death of man with Down syndrome
24 April 2018

The Preventable Death of Ethan Saylor
13 November 2013

Police officer who killed Ethan Saylor won’t be indicted
12 October 2014

Justice for Down syndrome man who died in movie theatre
29 August 2013

‘Mommy! It hurt’ Tragic last words of Down syndrome man, 26, who died in handcuffs on the floor after he refused to leave a movie theatre
20 July 2013

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