Can a Down Syndrome Man's Death Teach Police How to Handle the Disabled?

WASHINGTON – The mother of a Down syndrome man who died after being detained by off-duty law enforcement officers after a brief scuffle 15 months ago urged a Senate subcommittee on Tuesday to provide funding needed to train police in handling individuals with disabilities.

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Patti Saylor, a nurse from Frederick, Md., told members of the Senate Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights that the treatment accorded 26-year-old Ethan Saylor was “totally unnecessary” and expressed hope that the hearing before the panel, titled “Law Enforcement Responses to Disabled Americans: Promising Approaches for Protecting Public Safety,” will save lives.

The session on law enforcement’s handling of individuals with disabilities, which became popularly known as “Ethan’s Hearing,” attracted so much attention that the hearing had to be moved to a larger venue to accommodate the audience.

“Rest assured, we are committed to be tireless advocates for our beloved Ethan and all people with Down syndrome and other disabilities; and we will work with members of this subcommittee to ensure the necessary changes and policies are put in place to ensure what happened to Ethan never happens to another member of this community,” Saylor said.

Ethan Saylor died at the hands of three off-duty Frederick County, Md., sheriff’s deputies at a movie theater on Jan. 12, 2013, when the officers sought to remove him for failing to purchase a ticket to view the film Zero Dark Thirty for a second time.

The deputies were informed in advance that Saylor had Down syndrome, was sensitive to being touched and that his mother was en route to calm the situation. Regardless, the law enforcement officials chose to ignore the information and proceeded to wrest him from his seat. When Saylor resisted, the deputies forced him into a prone position and handcuffed his hands behind his back with three sets of handcuffs.

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Saylor died in the theater. An autopsy showed his larynx was crushed while being restrained. Patti Saylor asserted that the manner in which her son was detained — hands behind his back and face down on his stomach – “has for years been considered excessive due to the chance of positional asphyxia.”

“While anyone, disability or not, could have been injured or killed in Ethan’s situation that evening, our family also remains deeply concerned that Ethan’s rights, as an individual with a disability, were violated,” she said.

Ethan Saylor’s death was ruled a homicide but the deputies were found faultless after a grand jury probe and returned to duty. Patti Saylor said she met with officials from the Department of Justice soon after her son’s death. She understands that an investigation is underway and anticipates a DOJ report in the near future.

“Ethan never posed any immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others,” she said. “The crime at issue was not severe. Ethan was sitting in a movie theater without a ticket and there were far less severe actions the officers could have taken. For example, they could have listened to advice from Ethan’s support staffer and allowed her to de-escalate the situation by entering the theater to assist and support Ethan. We also feel there was no consideration, on the part of the deputies, to the fact that Ethan had Down syndrome – a recognizable disability. We believe that the amount of force that was used on Ethan was not reasonable in light of the severity of the crime, the risk to the officers, the risk to Ethan and the risk to others in the theater.”

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Saylor said funding is needed at the federal level to support law enforcement training for interacting with individuals with disabilities.

“And we must set standards to ensure that quality and meaningful training is the standard across all law enforcement departments and public sector agencies,” she said.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the subcommittee chairman, agreed that the federal government needs to do more to help local and state law enforcement agencies that have increasingly become the first responders for disabled individuals in crisis due to inadequate mental health and social services. He touted the creation of Crisis Intervention Teams (CIT) that train officers to recognize the signs of disabilities and de-escalate incidents “in a manner that protects the safety of the officer, the public and the disabled person.”

CIT programs also build relationships with the mental health and developmental disability communities that Durbin said are “critical to finding support and services for a disabled person following a crisis incident.”

“Law enforcement did not ask for this additional challenge but it was forced upon them,” Durbin said. “As is so often the case, states and local governments are leading the way in crafting innovative responses. We saw today that CIT programs, like those in my home state of Illinois, work and their success shows the promise of approaches that are developed at the local and state level. Congress should support these efforts.”

Durbin said police officers and sheriffs have been inundated with calls involving mentally ill persons because of inadequate community services.

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“And with the reduction in beds in state and local institutions, the default for law enforcement has been to put mentally ill people in jail,” Durbin said. “As a result, our jails and prisons have become our mental-health institutions by default.”

Denise E. O’Donnell, director of the Bureau of Justice Assistance within the Department of Justice, assured the panel that her agency is leveraging a number of funding sources to assist persons with disabilities.

“These programs help support individuals with mental illness remain in the community with supervision and access treatment when appropriate,” O’Donnell said. “They also improve the transition for people with mental illness out of incarceration and facilitate the successful return to their communities resulting in a reduction of recidivism.”

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