(CNN) — One day last January, Robert Ethan Saylor, a 26-year-old man with Down syndrome, went to see the movie “Zero Dark Thirty.” When it was over, Saylor briefly left the theater, then decided to return and see it again. The manager called security because Saylor didn’t pay, and three off-duty deputies, moonlighting at the mall, came in to confront him.
According to Frederick County, Maryland, police statements, he swore at them and refused to leave. The deputies tried to remove him, despite Saylor’s caretaker’s warnings and pleas for them to wait and let her take care of it. What happened next is a little unclear, but witnesses say the deputies put Saylor on the floor, held him down and handcuffed him. Saylor, called Ethan by his family, suffered a fracture in his throat cartilage. He died of asphyxiation.
The death was ruled a homicide, but a grand jury failed to indict the deputies and they returned to work without charges.
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.
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.
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.
In July, his death 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.
What’s next? An outside investigation either by the Justice Department or as part of a civil lawsuit might piece together the chain of events from the moment deputies confronted Saylor to his death on the cinema floor. We need an unbiased assessment of responsibility, not just to help the Saylor family understand — although that’s important — but to help all of us understand what went wrong. When law enforcement officers encounter people with disabilities, things can go wrong very easily.
Dennis Debbaudt trains police on how to respond to people with intellectual disabilities, and argues that such cases require special tactics.