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Advocates Call For Police Training In Meeting With Feds


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Days after a grand jury determined that no crime was committed in the death of a 26-year-old with Down syndrome who was restrained by law enforcement, the U.S. Department of Justice is keeping a watchful eye on the situation.

Representatives from four disability advocacy groups met Tuesday with Justice Department officials in Washington to discuss the incident, which occurred in January.

Robert Ethan Saylor went to see the movie “Zero Dark Thirty” at a Frederick, Md. theater and wanted to watch it again after the showing was over. When Saylor refused to leave, three off-duty sheriff’s deputies who were working security restrained him and he died within minutes.

A medical examiner deemed the death a homicide, but just last week a grand jury found that no charges were warranted in the case which has sparked concern and outrage from those in the disability community across the country.

Saylor’s mother was among those at the meeting this week which included leaders of the National Down Syndrome Society, the National Down Syndrome Congress, the Kennedy Krieger Institute and a Maryland group known as Family Resource Information and Education Network for Down Syndrome.

“It was mostly a listening session,” said Lou Ruffino of the Justice Department’s Community Relations Service, which provides conflict resolution in civil rights cases where there is community tension.

During the two-hour meeting, advocates spoke about the need for better training for law enforcement in dealing with those who have Down syndrome. One idea floated was a Web-based training program complemented by opportunities for personal interaction with those who have the chromosomal disorder.

“The ultimate goal of this collaborative effort will be to create a training program that can be easily accessed and flexible enough that all law enforcement and first responders nationwide can participate,” Jon Colman, president of the National Down Syndrome Society, said in a statement.

Though no decisions have been made at this point about Justice Department involvement, Ruffino said the agency will continue to monitor the situation and could step in to provide training or other assistance moving forward.

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Comments (10 Responses)

  1. Stephanie says:

    I would hope any future training would be applicable to any form of intellectual disability, not just Down Syndrome. Prader Willi Syndrome has behavioral impacts that may put affected individuals in conflict with authorities, and also causes obesity… Also, aren’t police trained about the special risks of obesity? Yes, they killed that man, because they were ignorant of (or insensitive) to the breathing complications posed by obesity. That is inexcusable, particularly when obesity itself is epidemic. It is not acceptable to be killing people due to inappropriate use of restraint, whether in our schools or on the streets, disabled or not.

  2. Nora J. Baladerian, Ph.D. says:

    One very inexpensive way to accomplish a minimum of training is to mandate every police, sheriff and security offer to watch the videos produced by OVC;
    These address communication and interaction skills to use with individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities as well as those who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing. The videos are FREE, and are designed for roll-call viewing as they are in chapters of about 8 minutes per chapter.

  3. Jennifer Campbell says:

    Actually – advocates are demanding an independent investigation on why there were no charges brought against these officers who clearly did not even follow their own guidelines in preventing deaths in custody. This is a crime that is being blamed on a disability – not on who is really to blame. What good will additional training do at this point when off-duty officers decide that their regular procedural guidelines don’t apply? 1995 NYPD Guidelines to Preventing Deaths in Custody – Rule #1: “As soon as the subject is handcuffed, get him off his stomach. Turn him on his side or place him in a seated position.”

  4. krlr says:

    While I agree training is important, the risks of positional asphyxiation are well known to all law enforcement. We are calling for an independent investigation into Mr. Saylor’s death. The DOJ has stated they are evaluating the community’s reaction – the Ds community is not large but this affects ALL disabilities. I am very pro-law enforcement but this was a “confrontation” over a movie seat – that they were unable to maintain control, or de-escalate, or use a reasoned, patient, proportionate response makes these officers wholly unfit to carry a gun or a badge. Think of all the potential situations involving surly teenagers or a minority angry being patted down once too many times… Will abide by the no link rule, but there are petitions at and several form letters/DOJ-FBI-State contact points floating around on the internet.

  5. Maureen Wallace says:

    As a parent of a child with Down syndrome, I call for an independent investigation so the entire nation can learn what went wrong and what law enforcement can do differently. Training should be an outcome, but we must have an independent investigation first, so training is backed by information.

  6. Dennis Burgess says:

    I am the Public Education Coordinator for the Joy A. Shabazz Center for Disability Rights in Greensboro North Carolina and I also have significant Cerebral Palsy. I had a similar experience with the Greensboro police department several years ago when I went to buy a coke on my lunch break. I was going down the street in my power wheelchair when the police officers saw me and assumed that I was lost because they could not understand my speech. To make a long story short, it took me over an hour to convince them to follow me back to my office so someone could tell them who I was. I have wondered if it would be a good idea for persons with communication impairments to wear an identification bracelet indicating what type of disability they have so the general public could better understand them.

  7. Maggie Mae says:

    While I think the outcome of this meeting is a critical step in preventing anything like this from happening to anyone else ever again… like my sons who are eight and have Down syndrome. But, where and when does the conversation about and taking action in getting an independent investigatory body to look into the [mis]handling and cause of Robert Ethan Saylor’s death happen?

  8. Anna Theurer says:

    As with many of the other commenters, I completely agree that training is important. However, I also believe that an investigation is still needed. Robert Ethan Saylor did not die from Down syndrome. Down syndrome is not a disease. Was he obese? Yes. Yet, so much of the population is obese and walking around with undiagnosed heart disease. How many of those people have died in custody? Not only that, these were un-uniformed, off-duty officers working as security at a nearby complex, not the theater. They used 3 (THREE) sets of handcuffs on this man using the hog-tie method. This method has been banned by many police agencies. So was this a lack of training situation? I do not know for I wasn’t there, but it sounds suspicious to lay all the blame on the victim. I am not saying Ethan should have been allowed to stay at the theater. I am not saying that. However, I am saying that more than police training is needed here.

  9. paul says:

    There already is training available for police departments. Its called Crisis Intervention Training and trains officers how to interact with individuals experiencing a mental crisis. The training can easily be applied to all persons with disabilities. Baltimore county and Montgomery county in Maryland already have this training in place. It takes a commitment on the part of towns and police departments. For more info visit Memphis University CIT.

  10. Joette James, Ph.D. says:

    What a tragic case! Individuals with developmental disabilities present with unique profiles of strengths and weaknesses. Whether it is sensory sensitivity, poor emotional regulation, or difficulties using language to self-calm, these vulnerabilities put them at particular risk for being misunderstood by others, especially in tense situations where emotions run high. This is especially true when the person “looks normal.” We need our first responders to be well-trained in order to de-escalate and diffuse these situations so that these tragedies can be prevented.

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