Calm, common sense and compassion would have saved Ethan Saylor’s life

Petula Dvorak
Columnist March 28, 2013

Frederick County sheriff’s deputies, meet Louisa Harris.

Harris is a rent-a-cop at a CVS in Northeast Washington. And she could teach you how to do your job right.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

If only Harris had been working the mall cop detail at Westview Regal Cinemas in Frederick on Jan. 12 instead of three off-duty Frederick sheriff’s deputies, Robert Ethan Saylor would still be alive.

Saylor died after a confrontation at the movie theater over paying for a ticket for “Zero Dark Thirty.” He wanted to stay and watch the movie again, but his aide — Saylor had Down syndrome — had gone to the car and wasn’t there to pay for another ticket.

Unbelievably, the moonlighting cops were called in for this.

Saylor wigged out when he saw the off-duty deputies bearing down on him. He didn’t like to be touched. They skirmished, the deputies cuffed him and all four fell to the ground. Saylor suffocated with his face pushed down into that dirty movie theater floor. “At some point while restrained and prone, he stopped struggling and was noticed to be unresponsive by the deputies,” according to an autopsy report, which ruled his death a homicide.

All in the name of about 10 bucks.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Saylor, who was 26 and was well known and quite beloved around Frederick and the New Market area when he died.

I wondered how it was possible that law enforcement officers could be so harsh with someone who was so clearly disabled. His death caused a tremor nationwide in the Down syndrome community. Parents everywhere imagined their children in similar scenarios. Advocates met with the Justice Department for two hours this week to urge better training for police officers.

And I thought about them the other day when I saw security guard Louisa Harris in action.

I was at the CVS on Bladensburg Road, fresh off a visit to the Minute Clinic with my sick kid and waiting in line for his prescription. A woman ahead of me was causing trouble.

She was chugging a $1.84 Sprite and chewing on a $1.87 Slim Jim and told the security guard that she couldn’t pay for them.

“All I’ve got is a dollar. If it’s gonna be more than a dollar, I can’t pay,” she screeched.

“Then why did you open it if you knew you couldn’t pay?” Harris calmly asked. “Eating before paying is like stealing.”

It went on and on, back and forth, the woman screaming, cursing at Harris, and Harris calmly taking it, defusing the whole situation.

The security guard got the woman out of the store without a fight, an arrest, a throwdown or a hog tie. It ended, and everyone was still alive. And all of us in line breathed a sigh of relief.

I wondered if Harris had any special training as a police officer? Military? Social worker? Mental-health advocate?

“I used to be a librarian at a law firm,” she explained. But she was laid off. “Gotta pay the bills somehow. And they were hiring security guards. I’ve only been doing this for a year and maybe a couple months.”

And yet, she had the common sense to know that the eating thief was mentally unstable and that peacocking her authority and enacting an arrest over $3.71 would not be in CVS’s best interest.

Why couldn’t that kind of common sense prevail when the three deputies — Lt. Scott Jewell, Sgt. Rich Rochford and Deputy 1st Class James Harris — confronted Saylor?

How about Regal? Why did the manager call security on a confused, disabled man refusing to cough up $10?

Remember, this is the movie theater chain that demanded the arrest of an Arlington County teen in 2007 for filming a 20-second clip of a “Transformers” movie to show her little brother. Harsh.

When I asked about it, a theater executive came up with a story that wasn’t in any of the investigative reports.

Paying for the movie ticket “did not come into play at all,” maintained Russ Nunley, vice president of marketing for Regal Entertainment Group.

“The caregiver was having trouble getting the young man to go with her,” Nunley said. And she asked cops for help getting Saylor out of the movie theater, he alleged.

No way, said Sharon Krevor-Weisbaum, the Saylor family’s attorney. “That is contrary to everything we have heard,” Krevor-Weisbaum said.

Yes, Saylor owed Regal around $10. But the company, which is swimming in money and has seen its fourth-quarter net income soar to $37 million, nearly nine times what it made in the same period last year, couldn’t wait 10 minutes for the aide to return from her car and pay up. First-quarter earnings are coming out soon, after all.

And yes, the sheriff’s deputies were probably within the law to remove the disabled man by force if he refused to leave and became combative. A grand jury last week determined that there would be no charges against the deputies.

Too bad there isn’t a grand jury to determine common sense and compassion, which both the Frederick deputies and the theater failed to demonstrate in this case.

Maybe they ought to hire Louisa Harris, the security guard at CVS, to show them how it’s done.

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.

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