Early this year, a schizophrenic, transgender, African-American woman named Kayla Moore died under mysterious circumstances after cops responded to a disturbance at her Berkeley, Calif., home. Soon afterward, an angry mob of 70 protesters took to the streets calling for “Vengeance for Kayla.”
In March, Kimani Gray of East Flatbush was shot to death by plainclothes NYPD officers after cops claimed the 16-year-old pulled a revolver from the waistband of his pants. The incident touched off several days of protests, culminating in a 200-strong march on the 67th Precinct.
Anytime a member of a minority group dies in police custody, calls for an investigation usually aren’t far behind. Usually, but not always.
Robert Ethan Saylor was asphyxiated in a movie theater by off-duty sheriffs’ deputies in January; the Frederick County, Md., medical examiner ruled the death a homicide. Yet a grand jury declined to file charges and the deputies were returned to full duty.
So what do you think happened next? Protests in the streets? Angry calls for “Vengeance for Robert?”
No. There was none of that. Why not? Because Saylor wasn’t a racial minority. He wasn’t transgendered.
Rather, Robert Ethan Saylor had Down syndrome, a genetic condition that causes intellectual disabilities.
Employees called deputies after Saylor reentered a theater where he’d just watched the film “Zero Dark Thirty.” An usher told him he’d have to pay to watch the film a second time. It is believed that Saylor’s aide told him to stay in the theater while she went to her car.
When the deputies arrived, Saylor refused their orders to leave. They wrestled him to the ground and sat on him while applying handcuffs. At some point, his oxygen flow was restricted, and Saylor died.
An autopsy revealed that the 26-year-old had a heart condition; such conditions are fairly common in people with Down syndrome.
“If you used any other adjective to describe [Saylor] — such as his race, religion, gender or sexual orientation — the streets would be filled with people seeking justice,” said David Tolleson, executive director of the National Down Syndrome Congress. Along with Saylor’s mother, he met with Justice Department officials last week to request a federal civil-rights investigation into the incident.
So far, Justice hasn’t signaled that it will get involved, but an investigation is surely justified. Questions abound.
People with Down syndrome are easily identifiable because of their distinctive facial characteristics. How could the deputies not have known they were dealing with someone with special needs and altered their arrest procedures accordingly?
While not true in all cases, people with Down syndrome are known for their agreeable natures. What happened in that movie theater to cause things to go so terribly wrong?
A man with an intellectual disability who’s doing nothing more threatening or disruptive than sitting in a movie theater without paying for a ticket should not end up dead at the hands of police. Mistakes were obviously made. Why were no charges filed?
Perhaps most important, could better training have prevented Saylor’s death? With intellectual and emotional disabilities such as autism-spectrum disorders on the rise, police need training on how to deal safely and effectively with impaired individuals.
I have a 7-year-old daughter with Down syndrome. I can all too easily imagine how confused Robert Ethan Saylor must have been when confronted by strangers in a dark theater and asked to leave after a trusted adult had instructed him not to.
Someone needs to investigate what happened and hold those responsible to account. Justice demands it.
This article appeared in the New York Post on May 1, 2013.