Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley pledged Thursday to respond to the case of a man with Down syndrome who died in the custody of Frederick County sheriff’s deputies by developing statewide training standards for law enforcement officers and first responders on how to interact with people who have disabilities.
The governor made the promise during a meeting in Annapolis with the family of Robert Ethan Saylor, 26, who died in January after three off-duty deputies attempted to remove him from a theater when he tried to watch a second showing of a movie without buying another ticket.
Takirra Winfield, a spokeswoman for O’Malley, did not discuss details of the meeting but confirmed late Thursday afternoon that “in the coming days, we will announce actions aimed at improving training for law enforcement personnel and other first responders so that we can do everything we can to ensure this never happens again.”
After emerging from the meeting, Patti Saylor, the man’s mother, said that she and disability advocates urged the governor to act. She said that O’Malley (D) told her he would issue an executive order establishing a commission to develop standards that would apply to interactions with people who have disabilities.
“I told him I want good training, state of the art, best practices, not something that just gets checked off,” Saylor said. “He assured me that he understood and that it would be good. I think those were his words: ‘It will be good.’ ”
Saylor family members and the disability advocates who accompanied them were not successful, however, in getting O’Malley to commit to launching an independent investigation of the circumstances surrounding Ethan Saylor’s death.
Relatives presented the governor with three boxes full of petitions which they said contained more than 340,000 signatures from people across the country asking O’Malley to use his powers to investigate.
The chief medical examiner’s office in Baltimore ruled Saylor’s death a homicide as a result of asphyxia, but a Frederick County grand jury determined in March that no charges were warranted against the deputies. The U.S. Department of Justice is investigating whether the civil rights of Saylor were violated.
Winfield said that although O’Malley is still considering a state-level investigation, “he is more focused on forward-looking strategies to protect the safety and rights of all people, including those with intellectual or developmental disabilities, and promoting a better understanding of all our neighbors.”
Patti Saylor said that although she was grateful the governor met with the family, she felt “a bit frustrated and discouraged” that an independent investigation might not happen.
She said O’Malley told her that he initially was not inclined to open another investigation but said that he would give the issue further thought. Saylor said O’Malley told her that he has not called for an investigation in other in-custody deaths during his nearly seven years in office.
“We want the details, no matter the outcome,” Saylor told reporters at a news conference outside the statehouse before her meeting with O’Malley. “There’s been no accounting for what occurred.”
Both Patti Saylor and Emma Saylor, the man’s sister, said they would continue pushing for a full investigation.
“We’re not finished,” Patti Saylor said.
Advocates for people with disabilities say that if law enforcement personnel are not properly trained on how to deal with this population, they might misinterpret, and even escalate, a situation.
Saylor had been watching “Zero Dark Thirty” at a movie theater and, as soon as it ended, wanted to watch it again. When he refused to leave, a theater employee called three off-duty county sheriff’s deputies who were working a security job at the Westview Promenade shopping center and told them that Saylor either needed to buy another ticket or be removed.
A spokeswoman for the sheriff’s office has said that Saylor cursed at the deputies, who weren’t wearing uniforms, and began hitting and kicking them. The deputies restrained him by using three sets of handcuffs linked together and escorted him from the theater. At some point, Saylor ended up on the ground and began showing signs of medical distress. A short time later, he was pronounced dead at a local hospital.
The case has attracted national attention and drawn scrutiny from disability advocates across the country.
A representative of Change.org, which coordinated the petition, said that about 10,000 of the 340,000 signatures came from Maryland.
Del. Heather R. Mizeur (D-Montgomery), who is running for governor next year, has been among those calling for an independent investigation. She joined the Saylor family at Thursday’s news conference and accompanied the family into the statehouse.
“Ethan’s death was tragic, it was avoidable, and it was a wake-up call for this entire state,” Mizeur said.
Mizeur said that if O’Malley did not come up with statewide standards for interacting with people with disabilities, she was prepared to introduce legislation with that aim.