The death of Robert Ethan Saylor, a man with Down syndrome, is a case worth examining for advocates. It makes me upset to see how a man who worshipped law enforcement would later die at the hands of the people he admired. Verbally and physically restraining a person to coerce them out of a movie theatre is unacceptable. It is also unnecessary to employ that degree of force when a caretaker is present and supposed to be supervising. The caretaker should have called Saylor’s mother to notify her of the situation and ask for advice on deescalating techniques if she was unsure.
Additionally, it is deplorable that a grand jury dismissed the plausibility of charging these police officers. How could their actions be in compliance with mandated training when it took Saylor’s life? It is apparent that the state of Maryland simply lacks the resources to enact comprehensive training needed to assess challenges dealing with individuals with an intellectual or developmental disability.
Because of this lack of education demonstrated across state lines, many people with disabilities have sustained severe injuries, and in some cases death, from interactions with police officers. Aside from strengthening training designed for law enforcement, this story signifies a dire need to teach people with disabilities about their legal rights in order to better prepare them for encounters with law enforcement. It is clear in this instance that our criminal justice system protects the interests of law enforcement before America’s most vulnerable population.
As disability advocates, it is our job to educate the general population about the challenges that people with disabilities may face. More needs to be done in order to ensure police are avoiding the usage of excessive force against this population. How many people must be injured or die in the hands of police officers as a result of not following appropriate procedures? Police officers are not above the law, and should be subjected to penalties like any other citizen.
That being said, the New American Movement for People with Disabilities is encouraging advocates around the country to take action, and contact your local law enforcement to determine what training they have in place to guide police officers in these situations.