CW: Police Brutality & Death
Ethan Saylor loved law enforcement. The 26-year-old with Down Syndrome liked to watch NCIS. He was thrilled to receive a Kevlar vest as a gift and enjoyed talking to emergency dispatchers. Tragically, he died ten years ago at the hands of the very people he looked up to.
Unfortunately, those with disabilities like Saylor are more likely to be killed by the police. According to a report from the Ruderman Family Foundation, nearly half of the people who die at the hands of police have a disability, as officers are frequently brought into circumstances where urgent care may be more suitable than lethal action.
The events that led three off-duty deputies to approach Saylor that night were never disputed. The deputies were working security, and a movie theater employee had contacted them about Saylor. The reason they were called? He had forgotten to purchase a ticket for a second showing of a movie he had just seen.
That night, Saylor watched the film Zero Dark Thirty with a caregiver. She asked the theater employee to be patient and warned the deputies not to touch him. She called Patti Saylor, who got into her car and headed to the theater. Many people witnessed the deputies conversing with Saylor before forcibly removing him from the auditorium.
Saylor didn’t understand what was happening. Witnesses heard the click of handcuffs. Saylor was upset and wanted his mother, crying, “Mommy”! He also said that he was hurt. His cause of death was later determined to be homicide due to asphyxia, according to the medical examiner.
Down syndrome is caused by chromosome 21 trisomy; it is one of the most well-known chromosomal disorders in humans. It affects most body systems, resulting in various clinical symptoms such as intellectual disability, small stature, flat face, flat nasal bridge, pronounced epicanthic folds, up slanting palpebral fissures, and a protruding tongue.
Down syndrome is also linked to a higher chance of developing other medical issues. Common comorbidities in individuals with Down syndrome include heart defects, sleep apnea, and leukemia. Individuals with Down syndrome have varying degrees of intellectual disability ranging from mild to severe.
After Ethan’s death, then-Governor Martin O’Malley created the Maryland Commission for the Inclusion of Individuals with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. Tim Shriver heads the commission.
As a result of Ethan’s tragic death, all police officers in Maryland are now trained differently. The Saylors filed a civil suit. Patti Saylor testified before the United States Senate. She supported a bill in Maryland that has given people with Down syndrome a voice during training.
Everyone should have access to the criminal justice system. Disabled people must be treated with dignity and respect while dealing with the police or other members of the criminal justice system, regardless of disability or mental illness. Ethan’s death was tragic, and he should still be alive.
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Startin, Carla M., et al. ‘Health Comorbidities and Cognitive Abilities across the Lifespan in Down Syndrome’. Journal of Neurodevelopmental Disorders, vol. 12, no. 1, Jan. 2020, p. 4, https://doi.org10.1186/s11689-019-9306-9.
Walsh, John. “Mentally Ill Often a Target, but Chicago Police Might Have a Solution.” International Business Times, IBT Media, 18 Jan. 2017, https://www.ibtimes.com/police-killings-race-2016-mentally-ill-often-target-chicago-police-might-have-2476586.
Vargas, Theresa. “Perspective | the Unnecessary Death of Ethan Saylor and What Has Changed in 10 Years.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 7 Jan. 2023, https://www.washingtonpost.com/dc-md-va/2023/01/06/ethan-saylor-decade-legacy/.