WASHINGTON — The mother of a Maryland man with Down syndrome who died in police custody last year told a U.S. Senate panel this week that the federal government needs to spend more to train law enforcement on how to approach people with disabilities and mental illness.
Patti Saylor, whose son, Robert “Ethan” Saylor, died of asphyxiation in January 2013 while handcuffed on the ground in a Frederick County, Md. movie theater, said more should be done to foster relationships between police and advocates for those with disabilities and mental illness, and that departments should be required to maintain crisis intervention teams to handle the interactions.
The federal government sent about $8 million in grants to states and counties last year to address police interactions with people with mental illness. Some studies suggest that nearly six in 10 inmates serving time in state prisons in the United States have some form of mental illness.
Patti Saylor stressed that her son had a developmental disability but was not mentally ill. Sometimes the issues faced by the two groups are similar, but advocates say the differences between them demand an additional layer of police training.
“If we have relationships, we’re less likely to hurt each other and there’ll be greater understanding,” Saylor told the Senate Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights on Tuesday.
“We are really looking to change things in the state of Maryland,” she told the lawmakers, “and you could be extremely helpful at the federal level.”
The death of Ethan Saylor sparked a national campaign to bring attention to police interactions with people with disabilities — as well as several investigations. Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley created a commission last year that is working on recommendations for statewide policies on how police should approach people with developmental disabilities.
In an initial report released in January, the group found that training is not offered in all Maryland jurisdictions and “what is provided is inconsistent and not comprehensive.”
The group estimated that roughly 90,000 Marylanders might have an intellectual or developmental disability.
“The first step is awareness,” said Heather East, acting executive director of The Arc Maryland, which has developed a training program to help law enforcement work with people with disabilities. “The fact that there’s a commission that has already started this conversation is good because organizations are reacting to it, even on the federal level.”
Ethan Saylor, who was 26, had watched the film “Zero Dark Thirty” at a Frederick theater and wanted to stay for a second screening. Staff at the theater asked him to leave.
When he declined to do so, three off-duty Frederick County sheriff’s deputies working as security handcuffed him.
According to the sheriff’s office, Saylor suffered a “medical emergency.” The deputies removed the handcuffs, performed CPR and called for emergency workers, the sheriff’s office said. Saylor died soon afterward.
A medical examiner ruled the death a homicide and found that Saylor died of positional asphyxia and excited delirium, complicated by his disability and weight. A grand jury declined to indict the sheriff’s deputies, and an internal department investigation cleared them of wrongdoing.
The Saylor family has sought an investigation by the U.S. Justice Department.
Patti Saylor told lawmakers Tuesday that her son was fascinated by law enforcement and that he collected badges, hats and other memorabilia given to him by police.
“Law enforcement was never called to respond to Ethan,” Patti Saylor said. “Ethan called law enforcement on a daily basis because he wanted a job, he wanted to know if they had a dog, he wanted to see their gun and, mostly, he just wanted to be friends.”
The Saylor family have become advocates for increased training, including the expanded use of crisis intervention teams that are specially trained to deal with mental illness and disabilities.
The O’Malley commission noted in January that the teams are not available statewide, and where they are available, training on disabilities is often inconsistent.
Illinois Sen. Richard Durbin, who called the hearing, said Congress should do more to address the problem.
“Due to inadequate mental health and social services, police officers have become the first responders for disabled individuals in crisis,” said Durbin, the second-highest-ranking Democrat in the Senate. “There’s never been adequate funding.”