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Why did Robert Ethan Saylor die?

Where is the public outrage over the death of Robert Ethan Saylor, killed in January while being taken into police custody in Frederick for the crimes of petty larceny and, perhaps, disorderly conduct?

Saylor, 26, had Down syndrome, a genetic defect that can cause cognitive deficiencies, poor judgment, impulsive behavior and other issues. Unlike many other disorders, it is associated with recognizable physical traits, especially unique facial features. Photographs show Saylor to have had the classic “Down” look.

He had gone to the movies to watch “Zero Dark Thirty,” a charged film about the raid and assassination of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan by Navy SEALs. Like many others who have seen this film, Saylor wanted to watch it again, so he remained in his seat when it was over. His health aide had stepped out of the theater temporarily.

When Saylor refused to leave the theater, a conflict arose, and three off-duty Frederick County sheriff’s deputies — working as freelance security guards at the shopping center where the theater is located — intervened. According to an account in The Post attributed to police, Saylor cursed at and struck the officers, and they used handcuffs to restrain him. After he was taken out of the theater, Saylor wound up on the ground, where he showed signs of distress. He was pronounced dead at a hospital a short time later. The medical examiner’s office has determined the cause of death as asphyxia and classified the case as a homicide. The sheriff’s department has turned over its findings to prosecutors for presentation to a grand jury.

I am the father of a young adult with severe autism. In 2007, I joined a team of educators, health professionals, parents and law enforcement officials to create a manual for first-responders in dealing with developmentally disabled subjects. The manual was adopted by the Nassau County, N.Y., police department, and its officers received mandatory training. The manual has been distributed to departments around the country and modified for local needs.

The key component of the training is a concept that is universal in police science: Less can be more. It is often better to let a situation defuse than escalate. A rush to action can transform an unpleasant situation into violence. Unless Saylor posed an immediate threat to officers or other moviegoers, the correct tactic would have been to let him calm down. Any police officer with a modicum of training should have recognized Saylor’s disability and acted accordingly.

At John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York, where I teach, and at police academies, officers are taught the “use of force escalation pyramid,” which begins simply with the presence of an officer on a scene. It ratchets up as needed to verbal commands; a light, open-handed touch; physical guidance involving clasping, pushing or tackling; the use of non-lethal weapons; and, eventually, deadly physical force. Not all situations allow for such a step-by-step progression, but studies by the Justice Department, University of California at Los Angeles and others show that poorly trained police are more apt to skip the less dangerous steps and use more force than necessary.

We don't yet have a complete accounting of what went wrong in the Saylor case, but the facts certainly suggest that something did. I am troubled that the officers involved were wearing two hats at the time: as both law enforcement and shopping center employees. A well-trained officer, following universal police procedures, will want to de-escalate a situation, even if it means causing discomfort or inconvenience to a commercial enterprise. But a movie theater employee will want to quickly end a distracting incident to get on with the show. Did the officers put the wishes of their employer ahead of their sworn duty to maintain the peace? Many municipalities prohibit officers from taking such off-duty jobs because of the likelihood of conflict of interest. Frederick County Sheriff Charles A. Jenkins agrees and told me that he tried to end moonlighting, in large part because of the conflict of interest, but was overruled.

My heart goes out to the Saylor family. My heart also goes out to the deputies who, according to news accounts, had not received proper training and also found themselves in a position where the demands of their part-time job conflicted with their duty as officers. The death of a person in their custody, whether or not they bear any legal culpability, is a heavy weight for a police officer to bear.

In this case, a number of factors — inadequate training, a failure by movie personnel to recognize that a disability is not a crime, overreaction to what at worst might have been a misdemeanor — may have contributed to the death of a young man. Frederick County has two duties now: First, determine whether criminal charges are appropriate. Second, make sure each of its officers knows what to do if they are asked to respond to this kind of situation in the future.

The writer is an adjunct professor in the law and police science department of John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York.

 
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