Mother testifies before Senate panel about son’s death at Frederick deputies’ hands

Ethan Saylor in an undated family photo. Saylor, a man with Down syndrome, died at the hands of off-duty Frederick County deputies in January 2013. (Family Photo)

Patti Saylor appeared before members of a Senate subcommittee on Tuesday and told them about her son, who loved law enforcement, who would sing in the voice mails he left his family and who, if he hadn’t died after being forced from a movie theater by three off-duty Frederick County deputies, would want to sit with the members of the committee, “because that’s where all the important people sit.”

More than a year after the death of Ethan Saylor, a 26-year-old man with Down syndrome, his mother continues to fight for him and others like him.

Her testimony came at a hearing chaired by Sen. Richard J. (D-Ill.) titled “Law Enforcement Responses to Disabled Americans: Promising Approaches for Protecting Public Safety.”

“I want to tell you firsthand that today’s hearing will save future lives,” Saylor said.

The Senate Judiciary panel’s hearing aimed to examine the role the federal government should play at a time when law enforcement officials nationwide are increasingly responding to incidents involving people with physical or mental disabilities.

Patti Saylor talks about her son, Ethan, at her home in Mt. Airy, Md., in this July 16, 2013, photo. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

“As local mental health and disability services become increasingly scarce, the burden on police officers to play both law enforcer and social worker will only grow,” Durbin said, adding that Congress and the executive branch need to help local and state law enforcement “develop practices that protect police officers, disabled individuals and the public.”

Among those who testified at the hearing were Aubrey Dale Paul Jr., a police officer in Texas who has a son with autism, and 1st Deputy Superintendent Alfonza Wysinger of Chicago’s police department, who spoke about the city’s successful Crisis Intervention Team training, which teaches officers how to interact with people with disabilities.

Pete Earley, an author and mental health advocate from Northern Virginia, also spoke about his son Kevin’s struggle with bipolar disorder. Earley described how his son’s condition declined until one day he broke into a stranger’s house to take a bubble bath and, as a result, was charged with two felonies. Another time, Earley said, his son walked out of a mental health facility naked, thinking it made him invisible.

“But this time, my son was picked up by a Fairfax County police officer who had received crisis-intervention training,” Earley said. “It is thanks in part to the CIT program that my son is thriving today rather than being in jail.”

When it came time for Saylor to speak, she described her son’s death as “entirely unnecessary.” The deputies, who were working part-time security at the time, forced Saylor from the theater on Jan. 12, 2013, because he hadn’t bought a ticket for a second showing of “Zero Dark Thirty,” a movie he had just watched with his aide. As the deputies restrained and handcuffed him, Saylor lost consciousness.

The death was ruled a homicide, and an autopsy report revealed that Saylor’s larynx had been crushed. But no fault was found on behalf of the deputies. Meanwhile, Saylor’s family has repeatedly called for an independent investigation and persuaded Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) to create a committee to implement statewide training for first responders and other public officials.

“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.

Theresa Vargas is a reporter for the Post’s local enterprise team.


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