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NewsOpinionEditorial

Reopen the case of Robert Ethan Saylor

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The death of Robert Ethan Saylor, a 26-year-old Frederick man with Downs syndrome who stopped breathing last January after a struggle with off-duty county sheriff's deputies who were attempting to remove him from a local movie theater, sparked a national debate over how police treat people with developmental disabilities. Yet it remains an issue that is far from resolved.

Today, Mr. Saylor's family, friends and supporters representing national disabilities rights groups met with Gov. Martin O'Malley to ask him to reopen the investigation into the circumstances surrounding Mr. Saylor's death and to demand better training for law enforcement officers who deal with people with developmental disabilities. The governor should do all he can to accommodate both requests.

On the evening of his death, Mr. Saylor, accompanied by his caregiver, had attended a showing of the movie "Zero Dark Thirty" at the Regal Cinemas Westview Stadium 16 in Frederick. When the movie ended, however, Mr. Saylor insisted on seeing it again without buying another ticket. That's when the three deputies, who were moonlighting as security guards at the theater, stepped in to remove him.

It's unclear exactly what happened next, but the sheriff's office said Mr. Saylor cursed the officers and that they then placed him in handcuffs. A few minutes later he suffered what the sheriff's office characterized as a "medical emergency." At that point the deputies removed his handcuffs, attempted to perform CPR and called for an ambulance, the sheriff's office said. Mr. Saylor was taken to a hospital where he was pronounced dead.

The state medical examiner ruled Mr. Saylor's death a homicide, caused by asphyxia complicated by Downs syndrome and other health problems and possibly exacerbated by stressful conditions that comprised his breathing. However, an internal investigation conducted by the sheriff's office cleared the deputies of wrongdoing, and a grand jury declined to bring criminal charges against them in March. Mr. Saylor's family was devastated when the case was dismissed and vowed to press for a wider investigation into the police methods and policies that led to the young man's death.

As of yesterday, the family had collected nearly 340,000 signatures from around the country on a petition for the state to reopen its investigation and improve its training of law enforcement officers. Far too often police treat those with mental or developmental disabilities as dangerous criminals rather as people who may actually be in need of their help and protection. There's no evidence Mr. Saylor represented a threat to the officers who were attempting to subdue him. Granted, he may have disobeyed their orders to leave the theater, but no one should have to lose his life simply because he wanted to see a movie a second time without paying for another ticket.

Mr. O'Malley met with the Saylors for about 40 minutes and later issued a statement saying that his administration is "exploring all options to ensure that this never happens to another Marylander again." But the sad truth is that it will happen again unless the state takes meaningful steps to prevent it through better training methods and policies for law enforcement officers who find themselves dealing with people who suffer from mental or developmental disabilities.

Traditionally, police have been trained to employ force, including lethal force, if they believe it necessary to resolve problems and maintain public order. Yet far too often that approach is a recipe for tragedy in situations involving people whose sense of appropriate behavior is impaired by a mental or developmental disorder. We entrust the police with the authority to use force, but with that authority comes the responsibility to employ it wisely and only when circumstances leave them no other choice.

Mr. Saylor didn't have to die that night because clearly there were other ways authorities could have chosen to resolve the situation, including simply leaving him alone. Indeed, it's quite likely that's exactly what the deputies might have done had they been trained to recognize Mr. Saylor's condition and treat him accordingly rather than immediately view him as a threat. We expect the police to protect public safety, but Mr. Saylor's family was entitled to expect them to protect their son's life as well when he ventured out in public. Why just the opposite occurred is the question Mr. Saylor's family has all the right in the world to ask, and one the governor must help answer if we truly don't want to see such tragedies happen again.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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