“I want my mommy”.
I can’t stop thinking about those words. That was said to be one of the last sentences spoken by Robert Ethan Saylor, a young man with Down syndrome who died in Maryland this past January. For those unfamiliar with this story you can read about it here. For those less inclined to click on a link, here’s a synopsis: Robert and his support person went to see a movie. The movie ended and he wanted to watch it again. His aide went to get the car. Movie theater staff approached Mr. Saylor and told him to pay for the next showing or leave. He did neither. The staff called for security. The rest is extremely hard for me to write about. Three off duty police officers, who were working as mall security, approached Robert. They told him he needed to leave. He was combative. They handcuffed him. At some point, he ended up face down while still handcuffed. He cried out for his mom. The police officers then realized he was suffering a “medical emergency” and released the handcuffs to administer first aid. It was too late. Robert Ethan Saylor asphyxiated. He died at the hospital. The medical examiner listed the cause of death as homicide caused by asphyxiation. This past week, a grand jury decided that the police were not liable for that homicide. Recent media reports have suggested that a heart defect, obesity, and Down syndrome were the real culprits. Sorry, but that is just wrong. He died because he was held face down into the ground and couldn’t breathe. This young man died at the hands of those off duty police officers.
I’ve thought about this post for awhile. I’ve felt very conflicted. This has brought up a lot of buried feelings about Down syndrome and my son’s future because of it. I am sad.
“I want my mommy”. She was on her way. Someone alerted her knowing she would be the one who could diffuse the situation. There are reports that she was literally minutes from the scene.
Do I think these three men set out to kill a young man with Down syndrome? I do not. Do I think they could have handled the situation differently given the fact that Mr. Saylor had Down syndrome? Yes. You cannot treat each individual “by the book”. Police officers are taught to react to the situation at hand. Robert was probably scared and confused. It was said he didn’t like to be touched. The situation was sure to escalate after they laid hands on him. Why didn’t they just back off and wait for his mother or let his support person step in? I’ve heard it numerous times since the grand jury found the police officers not liable – more training is needed. More training? Maybe – but I have to ask – do these people, who were sworn to serve and protect the citizens of Frederick County, need training on how to handle a non-paying movie goer?? Maybe not specifically but I’m quite certain common sense should tell them that handcuffing and putting someone facedown on the ground over a movie ticket is excessive force.
I’m guessing those advising for more training mean training in handling those with special needs. Herein lies the problem. This whole situation has brought up an ongoing debate in my head that I just can’t let go of. I’ve spent most of the past 5 months telling you how Eli is more alike than different. I’ve asked you not to treat him differently. Yet, I look at the sad truth surrounding this tragedy and I realize you have to treat a person with Down syndrome differently sometimes. I am so conflicted about that statement. Should people with disabilities get special treatment? Sometimes, yes. I’m not saying Mr. Saylor should have been allowed to stay in the movie theater for free. But to be removed with such force? That seems a little excessive for anybody. It was a $10 movie ticket.
The should haves, could haves, and would haves are useless at this point. Action needs to be taken to make sure this doesn’t happen again. If more training is needed in Frederick County as to how to handle those with special needs – do it. Maybe add in some compassion and sensitivity training as well.
What really makes me sad about the coverage of this story is that I only know about it because I have a son who has Down syndrome. It has been written about and talked about amongst the Down syndrome advocacy groups I follow. Other parents of children with special needs have blogged about it. But did you know about it? I’m guessing not. Why isn’t there a public outrage outside of the Down syndrome community? A young man was killed over a $10 movie ticket. He was mishandled by police. He happened to have Down syndrome. Does that make it more ok? Is his life not seen as valuable too? Human beings should be treated equally when it comes to compassion, understanding, and love.
My prayers go out to Robert Saylor’s family and the community that mourns for him.
There is a petition on Change.org calling for further review by an outside agency of the Robert Ethan Saylor case. Please consider signing it here.