Her Son With Down Syndrome Was Killed By Police, Now She's Fighting For Reform

by Caila Smith
Originally Published: 
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For law enforcement personnel, interacting with people who have intellectual and developmental disabilities (such as, but not limited to, Down syndrome and autism) is part of the job. But since police officers have little to no training for interacting with special-needs individuals, forceful tactics are often used and they are proving deadly for those with special needs.

After her son died on the floor of a movie theater at the hands of law enforcement, Patti Saylor understands these deadly repercussions of such negligent training all too well.

In January 2013, Patty’s 26-year-old son Ethan went to a showing of Zero Dark Thirty at a mall in Maryland, which he had visited hundreds of times. When the movie was finished, Ethan didn’t want to leave with his aide, Mary Crosby. Rather, he wanted to watch the movie again. Crosby decided to give Ethan a moment to himself while she went outside to pull the vehicle to the front entrance.

But when Crosby brought the car around, she discovered Ethan had gone back into the movie without purchasing a second ticket. Crosby explained to the theater’s manager that Ethan had Down syndrome, and it would be in the best interest of everyone involved to allow her and Ethan’s mother (who was already on her way to the theater) to handle the situation.

Patti Saylor, 55, talks about her son, Ethan, Tuesday July 16, 2013 in Mt. Airy, MD.

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But despite Crosby’s plea and first-hand knowledge, the manager called security. Three off-duty sheriff deputies working as security guards approached Ethan, where he was sitting silently in the same seat he had sat in during the first showing. They then proceeded to ask him to leave or purchase a ticket, and if he did not, he would be placed under arrest.

According to an article in NPR, Saylor firmly believes her son wasn’t able to comply with the deputies requests because he was unable to understand the situation.

“He didn’t cooperate, of course,” Saylor tells NPR. “He didn’t want to leave. At that point, I believe, he wouldn’t know what was going on.”

A civil lawsuit filed by Ethan’s parents stated his physical and facial features as easily attributable to individuals with Down syndrome. But still, according to the suit, two deputies “tried to drag him from the theater while telling him he was going to jail.”

When the struggle was well underway, the deputies handcuffed Ethan with his hands behind his back while witnesses heard him screaming, “Mommy, Mommy!” and “It hurts!”

Adam Saylor, 21, sitting in his brother, Ethan’s chair, wipes his eyes as his mother and father talk about Ethan’s life and death Tuesday July 16, 2013 in Mt. Airy, MD

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Ethan was already restrained by the deputies on the theater’s floor with at least one deputy on top of him when his larynx was fractured — making it difficult for him to breathe. After understanding the severity of his physical distress, the deputies uncuffed Ethan and made an attempt to call medical personnel. Sadly, the damage was done, and Ethan was already dead from asphyxiation.

As you can imagine, Ethan’s family is devastated. They are also, understandably, enraged at how this situation was handled by law enforcement.

Ever since the death of her son, Saylor is fighting like hell for reforms in the way law enforcement trains personnel when dealing with individuals who have intellectual and developmental disabilities. There has to be a change in the way law enforcement personnel view noncompliance in persons with disabilities, and there is a serious need to quit looking at it as an act of insubordination. Because, sometimes, it’s not refusal at all; sometimes, it’s an individual’s inability to understand.

With little to no criteria obligating law enforcement to undergo training in mental health or developmental disabilities, law enforcement personnel aren’t properly equipped to handle individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The result ultimately leads to unneeded force, and the consequences can be catastrophic. And in Ethan’s case, deadly. It’s unnecessary and tragic.

“Some officers have [less education] and receive maybe an eight-hour course on mental health. And that’s about it,” Elizabeth Rozziaky, a board-certified analyst with Center for Autism and Related Disorders, tells Healthline. “They often get way more training on how to physically manage an individual.”

Emma Saylor, 23, shows the tattoo she got in her brother Ethan’s writing Tuesday July 16, 2013 in Mt. Airy, MD.

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In 2015, Maryland established the Ethan Saylor Alliance, which includes persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities in the course of police training. With this organization in hand, Maryland is the leading state in equipping officers in the right way to handle individuals with disabilities.

Loyola University Maryland’s professors Lisa Schoenbrodt and Leah Saal developed the training, and with a state grant, they were able to hire ten adults with a spectrum of disabilities to role play common high-stress scenarios with police officers. Law enforcement is expected to deal with those who are intellectually and developmentally disabled, but most of the time, they don’t have the means to communicate with or respond to them properly.

The forceful tactics being used by police personnel create dominance in a situation that’s really just an individual’s inability to understand — one that cost Patty Saylor her son’s life. With this training, she is hoping law enforcement will have additional tools to diffuse potential conflicts.

Photographs of Ethan Saylor as he was growing up adorn a side table in the dining room of Patti Saylor’s home Tuesday July 16, 2013 in Mt. Airy, MD.

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“So many police officers have asked me, what should they have done? And I said, ‘Well, you’ve got to use your bag of tricks,’ ” she told NPR. “If you really wanted [Ethan] to leave, you may have said, ‘let’s go on out here and get a snack while we wait for your mother.’ ”

“There’s no magic pixie dust,” Saylor added. “It is relationship.”

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