He then reminded them how Saylor had died: being forced from a movie theater by three off-duty Frederick County sheriff’s deputies.
“I’m not going to use the term ‘use of force.’ I think the term ‘use of force’ is a little disingenuous,” Williams said. “It was a homicide.”
Saylor’s death on Jan. 12, 2013, was ruled a homicide as a result of asphyxia. The 26-year-old suffered a fractured larynx after the deputies, who were working side jobs as security officers, tried to remove him from the theater. At one point during the encounter, Saylor ended up on the ground, in handcuffs.
His offense: He had failed to buy a ticket for a second showing of a movie he had just watched with an aide and wanted to watch again.
Williams didn’t personally know Saylor. But the 30-year-old says that when protests erupted across the nation in response to George Floyd’s killing in police custody, his thoughts went immediately to Saylor. Curiosity then caused him to start looking into what happened to the deputies involved in the case. It had already been reported that they had been cleared of wrongdoing by an internal affairs investigation and that a grand jury had decided against issuing criminal charges.
But what the public wasn’t told, Williams says, was that the Frederick City Police Department hired one of the men to conduct background investigations after he retired from the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office.
That day Williams called into the public meeting of the mayor and the Board of Aldermen, he expressed concern about how that decision was made.
He did so again during their next meeting.
And again at their meeting after that.
“As far as I’m concerned, the Frederick Police Department is spitting in the face of the public by hiring this man and thinking that nobody will notice or care,” he said during a call into the meeting in July. “The whole thing is a joke. If someone has a marijuana conviction on file, they probably won’t get hired. If you kill an unarmed man with Down syndrome over an $8.13 movie ticket, apparently you get hired and then you get put in charge of deciding who gets hired.”
He told them that he didn’t know whether the former deputy, Rich Rochford, had contributed in meaningful ways to the community since the incident — but that it didn’t matter.
“Nothing can make up for one of the most unnecessarily violent and shameful incidents in the history of the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office,” he said. He then questioned whether the lawmakers knew about the hire and asked, “Are any of you angry? Are any of you concerned?”
One lawmaker, Alderman Ben MacShane, replied that he didn’t know about the hire and that he suspected his colleagues didn’t either because those issues aren’t normally brought before the board.
“I am worried about what that hiring says about many aspects of our police department,” MacShane said. He talked about how the board had recently heard about the “many valuable reforms” the department had made and how difficult it is for people to make it through the application process to obtain a position. “And I don’t understand how a deputy involved in one of the most infamous deaths in recent memory made it through that process. I am upset.”
Another member of the board, Kelly Russell, clarified that Rochford, as a background investigator, does not decide who gets hired and is not in a sworn position. She said she would not comment on personnel matters.
Acting police chief Patrick Grossman, in reply to an email, also said he would not be providing comment regarding a personnel issue. Rochford did not respond to a request for an interview.
Williams says he doesn’t know Rochford or “wish him ill will.” He just doesn’t believe that he deserves a position in law enforcement or that the city police should have been allowed to employ him without telling the public.
“How are they able to hire this guy and no one knows?” he says when we speak.
In some ways, Williams’s actions can be seen as an obscure one-man fight. Not many people probably tuned into those public meetings and heard his call. He also spent a day last month walking through downtown Frederick, carrying a large sign that demanded, “Justice for Ethan,” but his actions took place on a quiet speck of the map at a time when the pandemic has many people staying home.
But the truth is, Williams has hit on an issue that goes beyond Saylor’s case. Too often when people talk about police accountability, the focus falls on the immediate aftermath of controversial or outrageous incidents. The public usually calls for arrests, firings and settlements for the victims — and sometimes that happens. But what also happens, when the public looks away, is a recycling of officers with troubled pasts.
A 2017 Washington Post investigation into officers who had been fired from large police departments across the country for actions that included sex abuse, brutality and killing unarmed suspects found that hundreds were later given their jobs back or hired by other police departments.
As a reporter, I worked on that investigative project and gained an eye-opening look into the often hidden processes that determine who gets to keep a badge and a pension. I also covered Saylor’s death and wrote about the questions that haunted his family, the training Maryland put in place to avoid a similar incident, and the long-lasting lawsuit that ultimately ended with a $1.9 million settlement for Saylor’s family in April 2018.
Similar to George Floyd, Saylor was also heard calling for his mom in the moments before he went silent.
The three deputies involved in the incident — Sgt. Rochford, Lt. Scott Jewell and Deputy 1st Class James Harris — never spoke publicly about what happened. But their accounts exist in depositions taken as part of the lawsuit. After a theater manager told him that Saylor had already seen the movie and hadn’t bought a second ticket, Rochford said he decided to “try to reason” with Saylor to leave. He acknowledged that Saylor wasn’t disturbing anyone in the theater before the deputies approached him.
Saylor’s aide, in statements to authorities, said she told the manager and Rochford that Saylor didn’t like to be touched and would curse at them if they approached him. She asked them to wait.
After Saylor’s death, as a result of advocacy from his family, Maryland put in place requirements for law enforcement officials to receive training on how to interact with people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Men and women with disabilities now participate in that training.
It is part of Saylor’s legacy.
Another part of his legacy should grow from the issue Williams raised.
Regardless of what Frederick decides to do about Rochford, police forces across the country need to start recognizing that they cannot ask for the public’s trust while continuing to make controversial hires in secret. The public deserves transparency, and not just in the immediate aftermath of an incident that inspires public outrage and protests.
Williams says on the day he walked through Frederick carrying the “Justice for Ethan” sign, some people offered a thumbs up and others shared their thoughts about the case. As he was preparing to leave, he noticed graffiti scrawled on a wall and asked a stranger to snap a picture of him.
In the photo, Williams holds the sign with Saylor’s face in front of him. On the wall behind him appear the words, “Couldn’t Breathe.”
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