On January 12, in Frederick, Maryland, Robert Ethan Saylor went with his aide to see Zero Dark Thirty. When the movie ended, he refused to leave, saying that he wanted to see the movie again. His aide went outside to bring the car to the front of the theater, but the theater manager called security. Three local sherrif’s deputies, moonlighting as mall security, tried to forcibly remove him from the theater in handcuffs. As best as we can reconstruct, they threw him to the ground and held him down. Saylor then had a “medical emergency” and was taken to a hospital, where he died. The medical examiner determined that he died of asphyxiation, that he had bruises and abrasions on his body, a fracture in the cartilage of his throat, and ruled the death a homicide. But the local sheriff took charge of investigating his men, filed no charges, and the deputies have since returned to work.
Ethan, like my son Nicholas, had Down syndrome. During the incident, witnesses reportedly heard him say, “I want my mommy.”
KosAbility is a community diary series posted at 5 PM ET every Sunday by volunteer diarists. This is a gathering place for people who are living with disabilities, who love someone with a disability, or who want to know more about the issues surrounding this topic. There are two parts to each diary. First, a volunteer diarist will offer their specific knowledge and insight about a topic they know intimately. Then, readers are invited to comment on what they've read and/or ask general questions about disabilities, share something they've learned, tell bad jokes, post photos, or rage about the unfairness of their situation. Our only rule is to be kind; trolls will be spayed or neutered.The Down syndrome community has responded to this death with outrage, anger, and great division about how to handle it. Some advocates have started petitions asking for investigations from the sheriff, the Attorney General of Maryland, the Department of Justice, and even the FBI, hoping that simple online advocacy will effect change. National Down syndrome groups have met with the Department of Justice, but the men who killed Saylor remain at work and no new investigation has been launched. Even worse, the case has caused divisions among advocates. The National Down Syndrome Congress wrote a letterin which they focused on training because people with Down syndrome may have, “an inability to react normally in an unusual situation.” Some applaud the call for training, but others furiously accuse the NDSC of buying into the stereotypes of abnormality and difference.
In today’s diary, I will make two points. First, Saylor’s death is not an isolated incident, but part of a broader pattern of police violence against people with various kinds of mental disabilities. Second, while we can and should have a discussion about training and accountability for Ethan’s killers, there’s more at stake here. The stories that I recount below make the destruction of our civil liberties evident. I am writing this for my son, but I’m really writing this for all of us. Follow me below the fold.
On the night of December 18, in San Diego, Antonio Martinez was walking to work at his family’s bakery. As he left the house, knowing that his sister always reminds him to stay warm, Antonio pulled on a hoodie. Two San Diego County Sheriff’s deputies saw him and thought that he looked suspicious, so called out to him to stop. He ignored them, so first a deputy pepper-sprayed him, then hit him with his baton, and knocked him to the ground. They handcuffed him and threw him in the car.
The deputies were in the area looking for a domestic violence suspect described as a 5’11” Latino male. Antonio is a 4’11” Latino male. We could chalk this event up to “walking-while-Hispanic,” or think back to Trayvon Martin and the perils of wearing a hoodie, because this kind of thing happens all too frequently. But in this case, there’s an additional key detail; Antonio Martinez has Down syndrome. Sheriff's spokesperson Jan Caldwellsaid, “It was a dark night. There was a non-compliant person that was hiding his face and hiding his hands. It's clear in the light of day that this man had a disability, but the deputy at the time didn't know that.”
Notice that the police response, attacking an innocent man who ignored them, would have been fine if Martinez had been “normal.”
In Seattle, last July, Victor Duffy Jr. called the police to his house in response to an argument with his sister. The family left the house. The police went in. They used their Taser on him, and he died. Victor had bipolar disorder. His mother said, “"I begged them not to use a Taser on him. . . I told them he was afraid and I asked them to take care of him."
In Canton, Georgia, in May of 2010, police heard that D.J. Moran had drawn a knife in a bar. Officers responded, knocked Moran to the ground and ordered him to put his hands behind his back. As he kept struggling, they tased him. Moran has autism, a fact that his father claims the officers knew, and is extremely sensitive to touch. Police officials released a statement saying, "The officer used a taser when the suspect failed to cooperate by struggling and resisting, after being instructed to place his hands behind his back. The suspect only complied after the taser was used." Moran, “admitted that he squirmed and moved around while being cuffed. ‘I was terrified, I was terrified.’”
In April 2009, a mentally ill man in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, was wandering in traffic and refused to comply with police. They tased him and he died. Tasers have killed manypeoplewith epilepsy, not to mention hundreds of other Americans.
In September, 2008, in California, a 12-year-old autistic boy was getting unruly while at his middle school. He was tased but not formally disciplined or charged and sent home. The family lodged a complaint, so the police came to his home and arrested the boy. A lawsuit has followed.
In 2006, in Ohio, Bobby Rae Steele, a paranoid schizophrenic, forgot to take his medication one day, leaving him agitated. He got into a fight with his father, and died as the police threw him to the ground and pepper sprayed him, even though the situation had already de-escalated.
I could extend this list of tragedies indefinitely, but by now the point should be clear. In each case, a person ignored the commands of police and suffered for it. Police, in fact, need to be able to use force when the situation calls for it, and so when a teenager gets shot in Brooklyn or Chicago, one can have a legitimate discussion of whether police responded appropriately. We tend to read these events through our biases and let the facts confirm only what we want to find. But even for people who want are the most avidly pro-police authority, there can be no doubt that Ethan Saylor should still be alive and Antonio Martinez should have been able to walk down the street unmolested.
So what do we do now?
I worry about my son. My son often ignores verbal directions, but he’s only six. It isn’t always clear how well he comprehends any given situation and strangers might as well not exist for him. Someday, I fear, a police officer will tell him to do something, he’ll ignore them, and they will turn to Taser, pepper spray, and truncheon. But even if you don’t have someone in your family with a disability, the lessons here are grim. Police demand that we all comply instantly when they command us. If we don’t, a physical response or “non-lethal” weapons are appropriate. And why not, since even when someone like Ethan Saylor dies, there’s no accountability.
We can push back through our legal and political systems. We can demand outside investigations. We can pursue justice for Robert Ethan Saylor. This petition seems to have the most support, so why not go sign it? I’m hoping that some of you live in Maryland and can take direction action by calling your state representatives, attorney general, or otherwise creating local pressure to act. We can also seek improvements in police training on disabilities, specifically. Training in new areas has helped, at least somewhat, with issues relating to domestic violence, sexual assault, and other specific kinds of violence. Perhaps training might have in some of the cases I cited above. But more generally, we must demand police try to defuse tense situations without resorting to violence unless imminent danger looms. Force should be the last resort, deployed only when there is imminent risk of harm, not because someone doesn’t want to leave a movie theater.
But here’s what I am going to do next. I am going to teach my son this terrible fact: in this country, a police officer can use violence on any “non-compliant” individual. I have to teach him to obey everything any police officer says, instantly, so that he isn’t pepper sprayed, beaten, tasered, or killed.
And then I just have to hope he remembers.
Lollardfish is the username for David M. Perry, associate professor of history at Dominican University and freelance writer. David's essays have appeared recently on CNN.com, Atlantic.com, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.
KosAbility is a community diary series posted at 5 PM ET every Sunday by volunteer diarists. This is a gathering place for people who are living with disabilities, who love someone with a disability, or who want to know more about the issues surrounding this topic. There are two parts to each diary. First, a volunteer diarist will offer their specific knowledge and insight about a topic they know intimately. Then, readers are invited to comment on what they've read and/or ask general questions about disabilities, share something they've learned, tell bad jokes, post photos, or rage about the unfairness of their situation. Our only rule is to be kind; trolls will be spayed or neutered.