Ethan Saylor: Death in a Movie Theatre

Ethan Saylor

Robert Ethan Saylor, 26. Family photo that first appeared in the Washington Post on Feb. 19, 2013

The Justice Department has advised both the family of Ethan Saylor and disability advocacy groups that the 26-year-old man’s death may warrant an investigation under the Americans with Disabilities Act or the Civil Rights Act. Ethan Saylor, who had Down Syndrome, died after being restrained by three police deputies moonlighting as mall security officers when he re-entered a Frederick, Maryland movie theatre after the screening of “Zero Dark Thirty” for which he’d paid to see had ended, refusing to leave. Read more

The medical examiner found that while Ethan Saylor’s “developmental disability, obesity, atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease and a heart abnormality” contributed to his death, he ultimately died from asphyxia, caused in part from being restrained on his stomach in a position where he could not breathe.  The M.E. ruled his death a homicide, but none of the deputies involved were charged. The grand jury felt that they’d acted in accordance with their training and not responded improperly, given the situation.

Disability advocates disagree, however, arguing that Ethan Saylor was restrained unnecessarily and improperly. Concerned by the precedent that the ruling sets, and by what the entire incident says about the quality of disability training that Maryland police receive, they are calling for an inquiry of exactly went on in the movie theatre.

Ethan Saylor’s Death, the Media, and Conflicting Details

I find it fascinating that apparently we really still don’t know what went on in the theatre, as, according to one source, seventeen witnesses to Ethan Saylor’s restraint, including the attendant that was with Saylor at the time, were interviewed afterward. Sources disagree on a number of basic issues.  According to disabilityscoop.com, the grand jury’s statement described Saylor as “verbally and physically resistant“, while this news accounts say that he merely “cursed at the deputies and used profanity.”.  The distinction is important, as is the definition of “physically resistant”, which could range from not responding to a hand on Saylor’s shoulder to behaviour that put himself or others in physical danger, which might call for use of a safe, properly-administered physical restraint, such as one sanctioned by the Crisis Prevention Institute’s Non-Violent Crisis Intervention.

The fact that there’s so disparate reporting over basic elements of a story that unfolded in a public place really disturbs me. This article does suggest that while Ethan Saylor  hit and punched the deputies, it also says that he idolized the police and loved talking to them, to the point where the family would get complaints that he was bothering them with his requests that they come to his house to visit. It’s also in this article (but no others that I found) that we learn that the deputies weren’t in any kind of uniform during this encounter – they looked like men off the street, engaging him in a physical confrontation that went, according to the autopsy report, from one deputy touching him to all three trying to forcibly remove him, to a point where all eventually “all fell into a heap“, to Ethan being handcuffed. If Ethan did fight back, can he really be blamed?

Executive director of the Down Syndrome Congress David Tolleson, however, speaking with 930 WFMD, was clear on this: ”…there was no emergency. There was no public safety safety issue for Ethan to be restrained on his stomach.” . Family lawyer Joe Epso agrees that the deputies acted improperly, saying that the deputies should have said that they’d prefer not to handle the situation when asked to by the movie theatre manager rather than use three sets of handcuffs to restrain Ethan Saylor’s hands over his stomach.

Ethan Saylor: The Training Issue

Sheriff Chuck Jenkins says his deputies are trained in how to handle persons with disabilities, but is that training wide enough in scope and sufficiently thorough? As a comparison, the mandatory disability training for New York police doesn’t include a component on intellectual disability. In fact, it doesn’t distinguish between intellectual disability and mental illness. Read More  Maryland police Cpl. Jennifer Bailey’s assurances that “all sworn and civilian staff members got training in dealing with people with mental health issues from the Frederick County Health Department in 2011″ also suggests that training on mental health disability is also intended to serve as training on intellectual and/or developmental disability as well.

Even intellectual and developmental disability shouldn’t be regarded as interchangeable terms, let alone ones that are interchangeable with mental health disability.

And anyone who’d been properly trained in doing any sort of work with individuals with Down Syndrome in a context where restraint is considered a potential response to behaviour  should understand (aside from the general principle that restraint should be last resort) that there are physical issues associated with Down Syndrome that may make restraint problematic or even dangerous: heart problems are common among the population in general, their limbs are often proportionally shorter than those in people without Down syndrome, and obesity is often an issue. Training should also include insight into how early-onset dementia(sometimes very early-onset, compared to non-disabled peers) may be a factor in behaviour  and that the intellectual disability associated with Down Syndrome may make it difficult for the individual to understand everything that’s happening and what’s being asked of them. Like all of us, an individual with Down Syndrome’s reasoning abilities may take a further hit in frightening or stressful circumstances.  Behavioural interventions require patience, empathy, and clear communication – not necessarily restraints.

When restraints do become necessary, the Crisis Prevention Institute Non-Violent Crisis Intervention Protocols (which focus mainly on de-escalating a crisis verbally so that a hold or restraint doesn’t become necessary, but that may not have been an option in this case by the time the deputies became involved – it’s not clear from accounts what  Ethan Saylor’s agitation level was when they stepped in) ensure the safety of the individual being restrained and the people doing the restraint. They’re less dramatic and traumatizing than a full throw-down involving three grown men. And you can still immobilize and transport a large person even in a restrained position, and know the minute that they’re in distress so that you can release the hold immediately and re-evaluate the course of action.  There would be many more options than pile-ons and cuffs, and perhaps Ethan Saylor would still be alive today.

Even if they’d put Ethan Saylor in a the CPI-sanctioned two-person hold, transported him out of the theatre and into a room away from the public, and had to have him stay in the hold until his mother arrived and could assist to de-escalate the situation (again, the press seems mystifyingly divided on whether or not she’d been called), that’s better than improperly restraining a man and killing him.

The Bottom Line

Don’t misunderstand me: If Ethan Saylor wanted to see the movie again, he should have paid for another ticket like everyone else. And sometimes safe restraint is a necessary step to ensure everyone’s safety, when all other options all exhausted. But yelling, or even striking in anger, at an off-duty police shouldn’t be a death sentence. If Ethan Saylor died because there’s a gap in the Maryland police’s disability training (or the training for other crisis response organizations), then that gap needs to be addressed. Perhaps they don’t know just how much they don’t know, and so have no idea what questions to ask…or who to ask.

How do we start this dialogue? How do we make sure that this doesn’t happen again?

More on the Crisis Prevention Institute: http://educate.crisisprevention.com/

About Sarah

Due to a stroke, I've walked with a cane since I was 22 (I'm 34 now)...but I'm so much more than just the girl with the cane.

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