Man With Down Syndrome Died of Asphyxia While in Police Custody

Robert Ethan Saylor
Last month, three off-duty police officers moonlighting at a movie theater apprehended a man who refused to leave the theater after a movie ended. The man – Robert Ethan Saylor of New Market, Maryland – wasn’t your average movie-goer, and this wasn’t your average case. Saylor had Down syndrome.
Saylor originally visited the Westview Regal Cinemas at the Westview Promenade on January 14th to see Zero Dark Thirty. At the end of the movie, Saylor refused to leave his seat because he wanted to see the movie again. Because of his differently-abled mind, Saylor didn’t understand that he couldn’t stay for another showing of the same movie. Instead of working with Saylor’s accompanying companion to diffuse the situation rationally, the Regal employee called in the three off-duty policemen that served at the theater’s security.
According to multiple reports, the three off-duty policemen attempted to remove Saylor. Saylor, in response to their actions, “cursed” at them and refused to leave. At some point in the exchange, the three well-seasoned officers claimed the one 26 year-old man resisted their attempts to remove him and had to be subdued. In subduing Saylor, the three men wrestled Saylor to the ground, face down, and handcuffed him. At this point Saylor experienced a medical emergency and had to be rushed to a local hospital (Frederick Memorial Hospital). He wouldn’t arrive soon enough though – he was pronounced dead by medical staff once he was examined at the hospital.
Fast forward to Friday when the medical examiner’s office released their autopsy report concerning Saylor’s death. According to Cpl. Jennifer Bailey at the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office, the death is being ruled a homicide and the case is being referred to the Frederick County State’s Attorney’s Office for “review.” In the interim, the three officers – identified as Lt. Scott Jewell, Sgt. Rich Rochford and Deputy 1st Class James Harris – remain on active duty since they claimed police privilege in performing official police business in their off-duty, non-official security jobs. 
According to Saylor’s mother Pattie Saylor, Robert had no pre-existing medical conditions that would lead to this sort of death. She added, “He has never had anyone put their hands on him in his life. He would not have been doing anything threatening to anybody.” The medical examiner’s office would seem to concur with his mother in their conclusion that Saylor’s death was caused by external forces – mainly, the actions of the three off-duty police officers.
On the surface this story is horrific enough to warrant public outcry concerning education on how to handle differently-abled people. We acknowledge that everyone (through their respective places of employment) should be required to be respectful of differences in an increasingly diverse work environment. That goes double for law enforcement as their interactions are held to a higher standard than the average citizen (by their own admission and doing). Why then – when faced with a situation like this – does all of that training suddenly go out the window? 
Whether the three officers will be held accountable for their actions is still to be determined – especially since their superiors still deem them fit for duty in light of the circumstances. The better question is: will we as a society learn from this ordeal so it won’t happen again? People with developmental disabilities function differently than others, and should be treated as such. You cannot treat someone with Down syndrome the same as your average gangbanger drug dealer resisting arrest – the mold simply doesn’t fit every situation. We need to encourage law enforcement to break that standard mold and begin to learn different (and better) ways to diffuse these sorts of situations so an $11 movie ticket disagreement doesn’t end in someone’s death.

Tim Peacock is the Managing Editor and founder of Peacock Panache and has worked as a civil rights advocate for over twenty years. During that time he’s worn several hats including leading on campus LGBT advocacy in the University of Missouri campus system, interning with the Colorado Civil Rights Division, and volunteering at advocacy organizations. You can learn more about him at his personal website.


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