The death of a disabled man highlights how injustice befalls society’s most vulnerable.
The death of Robert Ethan Saylor, a 26-year-old man with Down syndrome, was ruled a homicide committed by three off-duty police officers, the officers in question got off scot-free. Anyone who cares about justice in general must begin by seeking it in this young man’s tragic death.
Here’s the story: last January, Saylor decided to go to a local movie theatre in Frederick County, Maryland. He enjoyed the film, and after briefly leaving the theater, decided to return to see it again.
Because Saylor hadn’t paid to see the movie a second time, the theatre manager called security. Three off-duty deputies who were in the vicinity of the mall theatre came in to confront him.
After that, police statements say that Saylor swore at the officers and refused to leave. Saylor’s caretaker pleaded with the deputies to wait until she arrived to remedy the situation and explained that Saylor’s hated to be touched.
The policemen did not heed the request. Instead, witnesses say the deputies put Saylor on the floor, held him down and handcuffed him. He suffered a fracture to his throat cartilage and died of asphyxiation.
“As a father to someone who, like Saylor, has an extra chromosome, I feel frightened when I see the words ‘26-year-old man’ ‘Down syndrome’ and ‘killed’ in the same headline,” writes Nick Cull, a professor of communication at the University of Southern California where he directs the masters program in public diplomacy.
“I feel so sad to read the telling details that illuminate his personality: that Saylor called for his mom as the officers pressed him to the floor of a movie theater lobby; that friends recalled him as warm and affectionate; that he was such a fan of police dramas on TV that he tried calling 911 to ask officers about their work,” Cull continues. “But that is not the limit of my unease. I am also troubled that so many people seem not to have heard about the case more than six months after Saylor’s death.”
Police disputed that this was a case of brutality on their part.
“It was a homegrown investigation done by the sheriff’s department on the sheriff’s department by the law enforcement going to a grand jury,” Joseph Espo, the Saylor family’s attorney told a local television station in Saylor’s home state. “It’s my understanding that the only witnesses were the investigating officer and the three deputies.”
The medical examiner in the case said that the cause of death — called “unusual” by experts — was asphyxiation, which was caused by force. The death was ruled a homicide, as Saylor died due to police restraint. However, after the sheriff’s office investigated its deputies, a grand jury declined to seek criminal charges against them, a move that has drawn the ire of many.
The plight of people with Down syndrome
Down syndrome, also known as trisomy 21, is a genetic disorder caused by the presence of all or part of a third copy of chromosome 21, one of the 23 pairs of chromosomes comprising the human genome.
The CDC estimates that one in every 691 babies in the United States each year is born with Down syndrome. Some of the hallmarks of the disorder include physical growth delays, a particular set of facial characteristics and a severe degree of intellectual disability.
While the disorder was not first diagnosed properly until the late 19th century, for much of modern history individuals with Down syndrome were institutionalized, few of its associated medical problems — such as hearing, eye, heart and gastrointestinal disorders — were treated and most people born with it died in infancy or early adulthood.
The rise of the eugenics movement in the 20th century in America saw the beginning of programs of forced sterilization of individuals with Down syndrome.
In fact, 33 of the then-48 U.S. states and several other countries required individuals with the disorder be forcibly sterilized. This ideology similarly pervaded “Action T4” in Nazi Germany, which made public policy of a program of systematic involuntary euthanization for people with disorders like Down Syndrome.
The case of Mr. Saylor’s death was posted on a blog for parents of children with Down syndrome, Down Syndrome Uprising, where one mother wrote, “This violence is a symptom of how we view people who are different from us.”
An article in the New York Times theorized about what Saylor’s death means for similar parents of children with Down syndrome:
“Her post reflects the impatience of parents at odds with a society unwilling to accept their children’s full humanity. The abuse of the disabled is a symptom. So is the recurring tragedy of police agencies unable to deal with people who are not criminal or dangerous, but vulnerable. We don’t know how this confrontation turned lethal — whether it was excessive force, lack of training or some unavoidable accident — though it is disturbing that Frederick County does not teach officers how to handle encounters with the mentally disabled.”
“My son has Down syndrome, so I have been following this case closely. But for months, it seemed as if only people in the disability community cared about it,” writes David M. Perry, an associate professor of history at Dominican University.
“Petitions for independent investigations sputtered out with just a few hundred votes. Local reporting on the case never made a splash in national media. Meanwhile, the Frederick County sheriff investigated his men’s conduct, ruled they had followed procedure correctly, and tried to move on,” Perry continues. He argues that Saylor’s story concerns everyone:
“Police violence against people with disabilities is not uncommon, but the cases don’t seem to get a lot of publicity. Most people see the disabled as, at best, passive victims, objects to care for, perhaps to love, but not people with whom we automatically identify. This is a mistake. We are all only temporarily able-bodied. Accidents, illness, and age wait for us all. What happened to Ethan Saylor could happen to you.”
According to the 2010 National Police Misconduct Statistics and Reporting Project (NPMSRP) Police Misconduct Statistical Report, which looked at data captured from January 2010 through December 2010 there were 4,861 reports of police misconduct that involved 6,613 sworn law enforcement officers and 6,826 alleged victims.
Most of these instances involved excessive force reports. Sexual misconduct reports were the second most common issues of misconduct.
There were 127 fatalities associated with excessive force allegations within 2010, which means approximately 8.1 percent of reported excessive force cases involved fatalities, NPMSRP found. Of these excessive force fatalities, 91 were caused by firearms, 19 were caused by physical force, 11 by taser, and 6 by other causes.
The report also found that in the U.S. police misconduct appears to be climbing in comparison to both last year’s rate and the previously reported rate 3 months ago.
Moreover the group says that while misconduct appears to be trending higher, disciplinary actions against officers and the number of convictions on criminal charges appear to be relatively flat overall.
While there are no explicit statistics that detail how many of those affected by police brutality are individuals with a disorder such as Down Syndrome — such information is not recorded in federally mandated surveys — “it is not surprising that people with intellectual disabilities are more likely to be arrested, convicted, sentenced to prison and victimized in prison. Once in the criminal justice system, these individuals are less likely to receive probation or parole and tend to serve longer sentences due to an inability to understand or adapt to prison rules,” relays the Arc, a non-profit group dedicated to helping people with intellectual disabilities.
The organization also says that while those with intellectual disabilities comprise two to three percent of the general U.S. population, they account for four to 10 percent of the prison population, with an even greater number in juvenile facilities and jails.
Perry tells how #JusticeForEthan became an official cause with activists calling for training for police on how to handle situations involving mentally challenged people.
Heather Mizeur, a member of the Maryland House of Representatives and candidate for governor, issued a call for new training for law enforcement in light of the Saylor case. A petition to current Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley garnered over 300,000 signatures in just a week in August.
“Disability rights are universal human rights, not abstract principles. But if it takes a personal reason to care about rights for the disabled, remember this: You might need them someday,” Perry concludes.
It is in our best interest to seek justice for Saylor, and try to insure that his fate does not befall another member of the human family.
Education and training is needed for police officers in order to insure that the rights of those with disabilities are afforded equal justice. This education would allow stereotypes and misunderstandings be diminished and also would allow the criminal justice system to more effectively protect the rights of those with intellectual disabilities.
Saylor’s sister Emma, who began the petition asking Maryland Gov. O’Malley to conduct an investigation of the case says “There’s always going to be a hole. There’s always going to be a chair here where he won’t be sitting. I will never again have a big brother,” according to a CBS affiliate in Baltimore.
The petition asks for “a need to establish standards for appropriately responding to cases involving persons with mental disabilities” in addition to disciplinary actions to be taken regarding the officer’s involved.
This case is not just about protecting the right of disabled people — it is about human rights for everyone.