On Jan. 12, Robert “Ethan” Saylor of Frederick County, Md., a 26-year-old man with Down syndrome and an IQ of 40, died of asphyxiation after a confrontation with three off-duty police officers. He was being restrained for attempting to see “Zero Dark Thirty” for a second time without a ticket. According to witnesses, Saylor’s last words included “it hurt” and “call my mom.”Saylor’s ashes now sit in the family’s living room while the three officers continue their usual shifts. No charges have been filed.
Saylor’s death stands out as especially tragic, not only because he loved police officers. Despite testimony from Saylor’s aide that she told the officers to “be patient” and let her “handle it,” a local grand jury decided not to file criminal charges. In late July, the federal government finally took note and opened an investigation into whether police violated Saylor’s civil rights.
This slow-moving process reveals something disturbing: Our law enforcement system often fails to protect people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and, in some cases, is complicit in their abuse.
Saylor is far from the first person with special needs to be harmed by police. In 2010, Steven Eugene Washington of Los Angeles, a 27-year-old man with autism, was shot dead after his inability to follow police’s directions made officers suspicious. He reached into his waistband, leading officers to fear he had a gun; he did not. In 2010, North Miami Beach police shot Ernest Vassell, 56, a man with mental disabilities, who was playing with a toy gun that they believed was real after he, too, had difficulty complying with officers’ commands.
Police can misinterpret the behavior of people with special needs because they do not even recognize that the person has cognitive or intellectual impairments. “We as human beings tend to approach everything through our own prism, and if someone is acting extremely peculiar, we’re immediately frightened,” said James Mulvaney, a professor at New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice and an autism advocate. “If you’re a cop, you’re probably thinking this person is a danger.”
“Most officers have more knowledge about mental illness,” than about developmental or intellectual disabilities, said Leigh Anna Davis of the Arc, a community-based advocacy group for people with such disabilities. “In fact, they may think they are the same thing.” She added, “Without face to face contact, it’s hard to help officers realize the need to change their behavior or ways of interacting.”
People with autism may be at elevated risk because, unlike with people with Down syndrome, there are no tell-tale physical features of the disability. As a result, when they do not quickly follow police directions, they are often misconstrued as being disobedient or suspicious.
In fact, because it was so apparent that Saylor did have special needs, his case is all the more “confounding,” said David Whalen, the New York statewide project coordinator of disability awareness training. Whalen runs one of the few programs in the country that exhaustively trains law enforcement in recognizing and appropriately responding to people with a range of disabilities. “Down syndrome is not hidden. The lack of recognition of the individual having a disability is baffling to me,” he said.
Unfortunately, Frederick County officers not only apparently failed to comprehend what Saylor’s disability entailed, but also quickly made it a physically aggressive situation, allegedly refusing to listen to the aide’s plea for patience.