Law enforcement challenges of intellectual disabilities–producer’s cut

As readers know, this is a topic dear to my heart.

On January 12, 2013, Robert Ethan Saylor, a twenty-six-year-old man living with Down syndrome, went to seeZero Dark Thirty at a local theater in Frederick County, Maryland. He was accompanied by his attendant, Mary Crosby. When the movie ended, Crosby asked him if he was ready to go home. Saylor became angry, and Crosby called Saylor’s mother for advice on managing the situation. Saylor’s mother suggested that Crosby go get the car to give her son an opportunity to calm down.

While Crosby was gone, Saylor decided to go back inside the theater. He sat down in his original seat to watchZero Dark Thirty a second time. Customers aren’t supposed to do this, and he was asked to leave. Against Crosby’s advice, a theater manager called three off-duty sheriff’s deputies who were working security. Things got loud, and then physical as they grabbed the 300-pound Saylor and tried to drag him out. Saylor ended up on the ground in cuffs. He suffered a fractured larynx, and died. The Baltimore Chief Medical Examiner’s Office ruled his death a homicide as a result of positional asphyxia.

The officers were never indicted. I believe that was the right call. I doubt these three officers had any desire to hurt Mr. Saylor, let alone to cause his death. That is precisely what makes such cases instructive and frightening. Indeed, the deputies’ legal defense was that they had followed their training in their steady escalation of force.

More from me here at the Washington Monthly.

By the way, my original conclusion may be found below the fold. My WaMo editors asked for a different conclusion, since this seemed to render a harsh judgment not in keeping with the tone carried in the rest of the piece…

Vincent didn’t pose safety issues in the three years he lived with us; he is blessed with a sweet disposition, and is wonderfully gentle with Veronica and our two young daughters. Still, the possibility of behavioral crisis remains in the back of our minds, in the queue of anxieties and worries. As does our concern about whether it would ever be safe or wise to summon law enforcement help.
Veronica and I were sitting at breakfast one morning. She was reading a Tribune story about a mentally ill young man who was shot and killed by police called to the family home. Veronica looked up and calmly stated: “I don’t care what Vincent is doing. Never call the police.” We have no particular reason to believe we’ll need to make that call. I just wish we had greater confidence in what would happen if we ever did.

Not sure where I land on these matters, to tell you the truth–whether I agree with the editor on the closing paragraphs, or on whether I agree with my wife about making such a call.



Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect,, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

8 thoughts on “Law enforcement challenges of intellectual disabilities–producer’s cut”

  1. I'm with Veronica here. Reminds me of the Chicago 90 year old WW2 vet shot by a bean bag gun by the police and died because he was agitated, in his own room in a nursing home, just recently.

  2. A large, physically fit person with Alzheimer's can present the same kind of challenge, both to family members and law enforcement. So good that law enforcement personnel are getting better training these days.

  3. May I ask an ignorant question? I am not very familiar with people with Downs and I didn't even know they could be violent. One doesn't hear about it much. Question is, did this have anything to do with the choice of movie? (I haven't seen it yet.)

    I am all for the better training… but I don't think it's right to let people hold other people hostage with their behavior, either. Perhaps though there are ways to work these situations out.

    1. I'm fairly sure anyone can become violent, given the right circumstances.

      Not to relitigate the event–and there's a lot here we aren't told–but we do know that the caregiver, Ms. Crosby, told the deputies that Mr. Saylor had Down syndrome, that he would calm down if left alone, and that he hated being touched. It might be worth remarking that (a) the theater employee may not have thought he had the option of allowing a customer to see the movie (or part of one) without paying, and once the security guards were called, they may not have had the option of telling the manager to let the guy stay. In other words, no one thought they had the right to assess the situation and make the call to depart from normal procedure.

      I have also wondered more than once whether part of the problem may also have been that Ms. Crosby, the person who had knowledge, was a teenage woman–just the sort of person whose knowledgeable contribution is most likely to be ignored in any case.

  4. That’s a bit like saying it’s not right for those tyrant babies to hold people hostage with their crying… it’s not a deliberate choice on their part.

    1. True. I do think there should be special rooms for families in many places. We had one in my church growing up. It's not that all people with babies have to go in them… but they would be available for people with loud children. Or, they can stay home, or go to Chuckie Cheese, where the whole building is loud.

      I don't really feel guilty about it. People go to restaurants to have conversations, not just to eat. They need to be able to hear, don't they? It's rude and irresponsible to impose on other people that way. No one expects young children to control themselves. We expect their parents to do their *best,* that is all.

  5. So just who is training the police these days, and what are they training them in? And when was the last time some of that was seriously revisited? I remember the stories that came out 10 years ago about the consultants making piles of money teaching police that all muslims were terrorists, but are there national standards for curricula? (I know, I'm ignorant here. I think most people are.)

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