June 17, 2013

IN RESPONSE to the outcry that followed Robert Ethan Saylor’s fatal encounter with off-duty deputies in Frederick County, Sheriff Charles A. Jenkins promised “that this agency is transparent and that all the facts will be presented when the investigations are completed.” But the public is still in the dark about how the refusal of this young man to leave a movie theater could end in his death. Now come troubling details about the department’s handling of another incident that also resulted in death. It’s enough to make one wonder who exactly is being protected in Frederick County and whether it’s time for an independent look by outside agencies. The circumstances of the two cases, occurring within days of each other in January, vary greatly, but each raises issues of whether these fatalities could have been avoided had authorities acted differently.

Mr. Saylor, 26, died Jan. 12 of asphyxia after a scuffle with deputies who had asked him to leave a movie for which he had not paid. Mr. Saylor had Down syndrome; his case got widespread attention because it raised questions about how well police are trained to respond to those with mental impairments. A grand jury determined in March that no criminal charges were warranted, but the results of the investigation of the officers’ actions have yet to be released. “The officers involved have been on active duty since April. Why is my family still unable to read the statements of those who sat yards away from our Ethan that day?” Mr. Saylor’s sister asked Sunday in a Post commentary.

Less publicized was an incident Jan. 10, when Daniel Vail, 19, was fatally shot by Frederick deputies attempting to execute a no-knock search warrant in a home invasion investigation in which Mr. Vail was a suspect. Sheriff officials said he was shotafter he pointed a shotgun at authorities and refused orders to drop it. That account, The Post’s Michael S. Rosenwald recently reported, has been called into question by Mr. Vail’s mother, as well as by purported physical evidence.

A spokesman for the sheriff’s office declined all comment on either case, directing us to a Baltimore-based lawyer who defends municipalities in lawsuits and who didn’t return our call for comment. Frederick County State’s Attorney J. Charles Smith III, whom we couldn’t reach for comment, reportedly plans to have a grand jury to review the use of deadly force in the Vail case.

What has taken so long? Clarke Ahlers, an attorney and former Howard County officer representing the Vail family, told us prosecutors were dismissive of the case until it got some publicity. He’s skeptical of how vigorous the grand jury investigation will be, citing concerns that the Saylor case may have been skewed, with the officers testifiying but not apparently the witnesses in the theater.

Mr. Saylor’s family, joined by national advocates, have asked for an outside investigation by the Justice Department. If Frederick officials are serious about their promise of transparency, they should welcome such review.