Robert Ethan Saylor: A Death in the Down Syndrome Community

As I begin to write this I acknowledge it’s going to be a stream of thought — of consciousness and subconsciousness — that will ramble about and around a massively controversial subject that I am torn up over and conflicted about in ways I cannot adequately explain.

Victim Robert Saylor

Victim Robert Saylor

For those who haven’t heard — and I’m sure there are SO MANY, especially those not involved with the Down syndrome community — Robert Ethan Saylor was a 26-year-young man who was asphyxiated to death when three off-duty police officers moonlighting as shopping mall security guards physically restrained him when he failed to comply with their request to leave a mall movie theatre in Frederick, MD in January. Ethan simply wanted to stay and watch a second showing of the movie he’d just seen. Unfortunately, he hadn’t paid for the approximately $10 ticket for the second showing and, we can only assume, refused to leave when asked… and that is when the security guards’ use of physical force ended his life.

The FACT that the THREE security guards were off-duty police officers made me ERRONEOUSLY THINK they were trained to handle what the NYPD calls an EDP — Emotionally Disturbed Person. Apparently, they WEREN’T trained! Yes, here in NY Ethan would have quickly been identified as an EDP and would have been handled, I HOPE and PRAY, differently. Sadly, for Ethan, with what appears from witness accounts to have included very little verbal coaxing, the situation rapidly turned physical and the three adult male officers physically forced Ethan down to a prone position laying on his stomach with his hands handcuffed behind his back. Within two minutes — during which he was apparently yelling and gasping for his mom to help him — Ethan suffocated, went into cardiac arrest and died.

Face-down and handcuffed behind the back is a pretty standard police procedure. We’ve ALL seen it in the cops-and-robbers movies! We’ve seen it used in rioting situations on the news! But, did you know that part of that procedure is to “reposition the individual at the earliest possible opportunity (read: immediately) to avoid positional asphyxiation and promote free breathing.” DID ANY ONE OF US WITH A LOVED ONE WITH DOWN SYNDROME EVER THINK THAT THIS PROCEDURE COULD CAUSE THE DEATH OF OUR CHILD? Absolutely NOT!

A narrower-than-normal, often-restricted airway (adenoids/tonsils); smaller oral cavity; low muscle tone (in the lungs, throat, chest); and excess weight in the chest/abdominal area, AS WELL AS a propensity for less-than-perfect/unintelligible speech, especially under duress, are all more-than-likely contributing factors to poor Ethan’s awful and rapid death… ALL ARE COMMON CHARACTERISTICS OF A PERSON WITH DOWN SYNDROME! Did those officers know this? NOT LIKELY, unless they have or know a child/person with Down syndrome. Had they EVER met a person with Down syndrome? Dare I say NOT LIKELY. Because if they HAD, they would LIKELY have been familiar with their generally agreeable personality and would have EASILY been able to talk Ethan out of his seat in that movie theatre! HELL, if my husband were one of those officers, he’d LIKELY have handed the movie theatre owner the TEN DOLLARS to let Ethan see the film again!!!!

SERIOUSLY, Robert Ethan Saylor lost his life over the price of a movie theatre ticket?  I absolutely GET IT that ALL people — with and without disabilities — are expected to follow the rules of society. He was NOT entitled to stay and see the movie again… even if he paid for the ticket because maybe there was a line of people out the door and through the mall waiting to see that movie. Maybe not. And, did any of them actually get to see the film after the mishandling and death of Robert Ethan Saylor? NOT LIKELY!

I also whole-heartedly BELIEVE that it’s the historical practice of segregating people with disabilities from the general population for most of the last decade that has robbed our society of not only recognition but familiarity with and compassion for people with disabilities. And, while that’s MY soapbox, SERIOUSLY, what rock must one live under to NOT recognize the face of Down syndrome in this day and age? I KNEW WHAT DOWN SYNDROME looked like before I had My Boys who happened to have been BLESSED with an extra 21st chromosome! I’m SURE I would have known how to better deal with Ethan in that situation than those “trained” police officers/security guards!

And what about Robert Ethan Saylor’s aide who, according to news reports, was “nearby” while all this was going on? How could his aide NOT be versed enough on Down syndrome and/or familiar enough with Ethan to talk him into a better mindset and/or talk security guards into handling it different… like maybe waiting for his mother who I KNOW FOR SURE could have diffused the situation instantly… without causing his death!

If the parties involved and/or the powers that be [read: mall security and theatre management] had ANY knowledge of or about Down syndrome — even outdated misconceptions — THAT information should have warranted special handling. It sounds to me — and to others trained in police procedure with whom I discussed this personally-disturbing case — that the situation SHOULD have been handled very differently. It appears that, even with the limited information we have, there were a number of standard police tactics that, if they had been employed (they weren’t) COULD have avoided the use of physical force and would have avoided Ethan’s death. If the situation was contained such that Ethan could remain in his seat without hurting himself or others until his mother arrived then it should NEVER have escalated. He had no weapon! There was no immediate threat to leaving him in his seat until his mother arrived. There was an aide present that could potentially offer information pertinent to Ethan’s condition and ability to understand and comply with security’s requests! Was theatre management pushing the paid security guards to remove Ethan because of monetary concerns (as in, “get him out so paid customers can come in and we can stay on schedule”)? Did the mall security guards act on behalf of theatre management (remove Ethan now) OR as police officers (peacefully resolve the situation)?

Note to Self [and to EVERY mother of a child with Down Syndrome]: Make sure EVERYONE involved with My BEAUTIFUL Boys — who, did I mention, happen to have Down syndrome — is well-versed in the syndrome and its potential effects on my children,  in how they communicate their needs, stand as an advocate for them, and to diffuse a volatile situation should one arise. NO EASY TASK but, apparently, one that is absolutely necessary for their survival in our historically segregated, rush-to-a-physical-solution society.

Did Ethan try to communicate his needs and wants to the security guards before the disagreement escalated? I don’t know. If he did, could the security guards NOT understand him and so the situation worsened? I don’t know. Did the security guards know they were dealing with someone with Down syndrome, someone with an intellectual disability? Or whether Ethan could understand what they were asking him to do and why? Again, I don’t know. Did Robert Ethan Saylor fight the security guards (because of that lack of understanding) and so they used physical force to subdue him? I don’t know. Did the disturbance go on for a significantly long-enough time to warrant physical intervention? I don’t know. Did the aide try to intervene but the security guards didn’t listen? Again, I don’t know. Was the aide trained to handle such situations but was disregarded by the security guards? Don’t know. What we do know is that Robert Ethan Saylor had Down syndrome, was intellectually impaired and that his life was taken from him — a “homicide” according to the coroner — by his assailants.

As we form our opinions of this situation, we are limited by the documentation being released, the media coverage, and media/police/judicial and our own bias. BUT, no matter how this horribly unfortunate incident went down there is a mother who lost her beloved son… and THAT didn’t have to and should not have happened!

The FACT that a person with Down syndrome may be more prone to asphyxiation should ABSOLUTELY be shared with ALL police departments around the country and world. As a result of this tragedy, the National Down Syndrome Society (NDSS) is creating a written document/policy outlining the appropriate handling of such a situation involving people with Down syndrome. THIS is something we should ALL ensure is NOT ONLY distributed to our local police forces, but trained to and enforced.  ALL police departments should be made to mandate training in how to identify and handle a situation that involves an emotionally disturbed person INCLUDING one who may be intellectually disabled. AND, finally, there should be checks in place that preclude any police organization from having the responsibility for self-policing and/or self-judging whether the circumstances and handling of any case called under scrutiny for review are appropriate or not, negligent or not. Bias naturally interferes with an unbiased outcome! Any and all of these steps MIGHT have saved Robert Ethan Saylor’s life… so that he could have lived to see another day and another showing of the movie he wanted to see again… Zero Dark Thirty! Implementing the last step could prevent it from happening again.

I know that if it was MY SON lying dead, face-down in a movie theatre aisle at the hands of insufficiently-trained, off-duty police officers moonlighting as mall security, I would be beyond inconsolable, BEYOND IRATE! In truth, I’d be going for the jugular! I KNOW My Boys would NEVER warrant that kind of treatment.  And I would NEVER rest until I ensured that the mishandling was addressed, that the police in my area (and everywhere) were better trained. I would do everything I could to ensure that every parent of a child with Down syndrome KNEW of the dangers of such a situation and I would do everything I could to make sure it didn’t — couldn’t — happen to THEIR child. Let’s all do whatever we can — no matter how small the gesture seems — to make sure it NEVER happens to another member of our community… through publicity, advocacy and pro-active policy change! This tragedy has befallen Ethan and the Saylor family. It COULD have been — and next time might be — ANY of our children with Down syndrome.

How do you feel and what do you think about the death of Robert Ethan Saylor? Should the police department self-police? What do you suggest we do to prevent this from happening to anyone else?

More Reading:, Enjoying the Small Things, NY Times Opinion-Pages


About Maggie

I'm a stay-at-home mother of 3 children including a 15-year-old daughter, the Old Soul, and 11-year-old identical twin boys who've been blessed with an extra 21st chromosome (aka: Down Syndrome). I happily spend my time doing all that I can do -- breaking the proverbial box wide open -- to foster my children's development and then sharing what I learn with you through this blog.
This entry was posted in Advocacy, challenges, compassion, Down syndrome, Down Syndrome Advocacy, Down Syndrome awareness, NDSS, parent advocate, Segregation. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Robert Ethan Saylor: A Death in the Down Syndrome Community

  1. Pingback: Justice for Ethan Saylor | Little Bird's Dad

  2. Maggie says:

    Thank you Little Bird’s Dad…. Hey everyone! Go read Little Bird’s Dad’s blog! He’s posting not-to-be-missed stuff on this topic!

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