Chris Schoenbrodt, who has Down syndrome, described the program as important because, “Good cops, not mean cops.” (Theresa Vargas/The Washington Post)
Columnist

Elaina Camacho had threatened to slit her wrists and had locked her bedroom door when a Howard County police officer arrived and was told she was 17 and had autism.

He knocked on the door and asked if he could come in.

“No!”

He asked again.

“No!”

He told her it was rude to not open it because she had a guest. He asked once more.


Elaina Camacho, 29, has Asperger's syndrome and is among the participants in the training program. (Theresa Vargas/The Washington Post)

“No!”

He used a key to open it. Slouching in a chair, Elaina faced him and explained she wasn’t really going to kill herself. She was just angry that her mother wanted her to stop playing video games. He nodded his understanding. But he suggested that because she was 17, she probably kept a bag of makeup and in it, a pair of scissors.

“I don’t have scissors, but I have a nail file.”

“Where is it?”

“I threw it away.”

“You seem like you may want to hurt yourself.”

“Maybe I do.”

He asked her if she would like to go to the hospital with him. “No!” she told him again. He explained that it may have seemed a question, but it wasn’t. He couldn’t leave her, knowing she might hurt herself. He told her to stand up and put her hands behind her back.

She did and he took a few steps toward her.

But instead of the click of handcuffs, came the sound of applause.

Elaina had never been in any real danger of hurting herself. She was playing a role as part of a training exercise for a pilot program that if deemed successful could help law enforcement officers in Maryland, and possibly beyond, learn to better interact with people with disabilities. Although the scenario was acted out in front of a classroom, parts of it were far from fake.

Bryan Borowski is a real Howard County officer. And Elaina, 29, has Asperger’s syndrome, which is on the autism spectrum. None of what they were saying was scripted.

The Learning to LEAD program, which is being run through a state grant awarded to two faculty members at Loyola University in Maryland, aspires to do more than just incorporate people with disabilities into law enforcement training. It aims to make them educators, capable of acting out scenarios with officers who can then take those lessons into the field with them.

Advocates for people with disabilities, law enforcement officials and use-of-force experts can all speak to why this type of training is crucial. They can cite studies and statistics and powerful firsthand anecdotes.

But what it really comes down to is this: Ethan Saylor should not be dead.

The 26-year-old with Down syndrome had enjoyed watching the movie “Zero Dark Thirty” so much on Jan. 12, 2013, that he slipped back into the theater to watch it again. But because he hadn’t bought a second ticket, a theater employee called security and three off-duty Frederick County sheriff deputies who were working part time at the Westview Promenade shopping center tried to get him to leave. When he refused, they forcibly removed him and handcuffed him. Witnesses reported hearing him “squalling like a child” and saying, “it hurt, call my mom” — and then silence.

At one point, Saylor and the deputies ended up on the floor and he suffered a fractured larynx. His death was later ruled a homicide as a result of asphyxia.

I wrote about Saylor when he died. I wrote about him again when a grand jury cleared the deputies of criminal charges, and again when Saylor’s family settled with the state of Maryland, the deputies and the management company of the shopping center for $1.9 million.

That settlement in April marked the end of the lawsuit in Saylor’s name. But on Thursday night, the moment I walked into a Maryland classroom, I could see that it hadn’t marked the end of his story.

He was very much in that room as a group of men and women with different disabilities, including Down syndrome, cerebral palsy and visual and hearing impairments, acted out police-involved scenarios and then critiqued one another so they could strengthen their roles.

“Christopher, I think you need to show a little bit of emotion,” a young man with autism told Christopher Schoenbrodt, who is 39 and has Down syndrome. He had just pretended his wallet was stolen and in it was $100 and his identification. “You’ve got to have that nervousness and anger and anxiety.”

Christopher took in the criticism with a nod. He recognized that the point was to get better.

He has been doing drama for 20 years and counts it among the things he loves. That list also includes WWE and the Orioles. His words can be difficult to understand at times and so he has learned to repeat himself and use gestures to show what he means.

“I have good dance moves,” he said, showing off how he uses his hands and feet when needed.

When I asked him why the training was important, he said, “Good cops, not mean cops.”

He’s right. Most cops are good. They work under incredibly stressful, unpredictable circumstances, and the least we can do is to prepare them to do their job well and remain “good cops.” None of them should be placed in a situation where they might hurt or kill a person because they weren’t trained on how to interact with someone who may not respond in an expected way. If these officers don’t know that a person with autism may lash out when touched, or that someone who is deaf is not ignoring them but can’t hear them say, “Put your hands up,” then we have failed them, along with some of the most vulnerable members of our community.

We know that before Ethan Saylor’s death there were cases that showed a need for better law enforcement training. After his death, there are no excuses.

Maryland made a commitment in Saylor’s name to better prepare its first responders to interact with people with disabilities and to include these individuals as self-advocates in that training. The pilot program that Christopher and Elaina are now participating in will be used in the next few months to train veteran and new officers in Prince George’s County.

We should all hope it is successful and can serve as a model for other cities and states. Because maybe the next encounter won’t be in Maryland, or in a movie theater. Maybe it will be through a locked bedroom door in Virginia or some other state, and there won’t be a room ready to applaud.

After her scene ended, Elaina apologized for how her character had behaved.

“I promise I’m not like that,” she said.

Officer Borowski assured her that she did “a really good job.” When they first tried that scene, she had agreed too easily to open the door and to go with him to the hospital. Her cooperation was appreciated, he said. But her resistance would help other officers more.