Patti Saylor, the mother of a 26-year-old man with Down syndrome who died at a movie theater while being subdued by off-duty Frederick County sheriff deputies, inserted herself into county politics Wednesday, endorsing the opponent of longtime Sheriff Chuck Jenkins.
Speaking at a news conference at the public library, Saylor said she was supporting Democrat Karl Bickel because he’s the best law enforcement person to lead the county through an awakening in how best to deal with special needs residents such as her late son, Robert Ethan Saylor.
Bickel said the young man, who idolized police officers, “would be very proud of his mom.”
Her decision to back Bickel, a former senior member of the sheriff’s department and an ex-policy analyst at the Justice Department, comes less than a year after she filed suit against the sheriff’s office and several others in connection with her son’s death in early 2013.
The young man had gone to Regal Cinemas Westview Stadium 16 with his aide to watch “Zero Dark Thirty.” After it was over, he wanted to watch the movie a second time, only to be told that he needed to buy another ticket. Witnesses said he resisted when three off-duty deputies working a private security detail removed him from his seat and dragged him out of the theater.
In handcuffs on the ground, Saylor stopped breathing. His death, the result of asphyxia, was ruled a homicide by the state medical examiner’s office.
The case generated national outrage. A grand jury declined to indict the three deputies involved, and an internal affairs investigation cleared them. The Justice Department’s civil rights section is investigating.
In an interview last year, Jenkins predicted that his political opponents would use the death against him. On Wednesday, he sharply criticized Bickel.
“Because the case is currently in litigation, I can’t speak directly to the incident, however I understand Mrs. Saylor’s position, and it is certainly her choice to make that endorsement,” Jenkins said in a statement. “The fact that my opponent would use the Ethan Saylor incident for his personal political gain in his effort to win the election speaks to his lack of integrity and character. I’m confident the public will see it that way.”
Bickel’s response: “He made it an issue by his inaction as sheriff.”
Bickel faces a tough opponent in Jenkins, a homegrown sheriff whom people simply call Chuck. Jenkins has been a hero to the tea party movement, particularly for his tough stance against illegal immigrants and for speeches decrying “the redistribution of our own wealth.”
He ran unopposed in 2010, but Bickel thinks Jenkins is vulnerable, particularly because of the Saylor incident and his “deliberate indifference” to specialized training for officers dealing with those who have special needs.
After Saylor’s death, deputies began receiving training on how to best deal with people whose IQs were lower than 70. Before that, their training had been limited to dealing with those who have autism or mental illness.