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The Trouble With the Robert Ethan Saylor Case

Posted on Jul 28, 2013
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Robert Ethan Saylor.

By Nick Cull

There are many things that trouble me about the death of Robert Ethan Saylor. Stories of police brutality always carry the special chill that comes with a violation of the public trust even when the perpetrators are off duty and moonlighting as mall cops. I hate that, despite the Maryland chief medical examiner declaring the manner of death as homicide, a grand jury found there was no case to be brought. I hate the detail of the broken throat bones in the autopsy report that point to strangulation. And as a father to someone who, like Saylor, has an extra chromosome, I feel frightened when I see the words “26-year-old man” “Down syndrome” and “killed” in the same headline. I feel so sad to read the telling details that illuminate his personality: that Saylor called for his mom as the officers pressed him to the floor of a movie theater lobby; that friends recalled him as warm and affectionate; that he was such a fan of police dramas on TV that he tried calling 911 to ask officers about their work. 

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But that is not the limit of my unease. I am also troubled that so many people seem not to have heard about the case more than six months after Saylor’s death.   

The facts of the case are as follows: On a Saturday night in mid-January, Saylor and his caregiver went to a Regal movie theater near his home in New Market, Md., to see “Zero Dark Thirty.” When the movie ended, the caregiver went to get her car and left Saylor outside. He re-entered the theater as if to watch the movie again and was told by the management that he had to either buy a new $10 ticket or leave. When he failed to do either, sheriff’s deputies who were moonlighting as security guards at the mall where the theater was located were called in and the confrontation escalated into a scuffle. The sheriff’s deputies restrained Saylor with handcuffs and forced him onto the floor at which point he became “unresponsive.” He was taken to a hospital where he was pronounced dead. The Frederick County Sheriff’s Office suspended the off-duty deputies involved, but reinstated them after the grand jury’s decision. 

There has been local coverage of Saylor’s death in Maryland, and the lively online network of parents and activists who support and seek to advance the cause of people with special needs has been talking about what seems like an outrageous miscarriage of justice. The National Down Syndrome Society has petitioned the Justice Department to investigate with a view to creating better guidelines for interactions between the police and people with special needs, but the issue has not jumped into the wider community of concern. 

Why?

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Part of the problem is the fragmentation that has come with social media. In our wired world, some stories stay within closed loops of people directly concerned with an issue by virtue of shared race, location or other marker of identity. That is understandable. Yet Saylor’s story has been reported in The Washington Post, The New York Times and The Huffington Post. It’s also attracted notice on some right-wing websites and the libertarian Cato Institute’s blog that keep an eye out for violations of individual liberty. But the trail of mainstream media commentary soon runs cold. WTOP news in Washington, D.C., did a story on the case, but NPR has not mentioned it and neither, it would seem, have its local affiliates. There has been nothing in The Daily Beast. Sources with a track record of sound coverage in the civil rights domain such as Mother Jones and Truthdig (until this piece) have also passed over the story. Some parents in the Down syndrome community began an email campaign to try to get journalist George Will, whose son Jon has the genetic condition, to say something about Saylor in a column but he hasn’t done so.

What does this mean? Perhaps the case is not clear cut. The grand jury certainly thought so. Perhaps a 300-pound man (as Saylor was) who resists and swears at cops when they attempt to remove him from a movie theater has to expect to be handcuffed and thrown to the ground. Perhaps the confrontation was an appropriate way to deal with the misdemeanor of ducking back into a theater. Perhaps having a bad temper, disliking being touched by strangers and having a weak heart create some sort of co-responsibility on Saylor for what happened? I suspect not. Would guidelines for dealing with people like Saylor have helped? It seems that the officers concerned didn’t even follow the procedures for restraining typical, let alone special needs, people. 

One thing that those who have been following the story detect is an underlying lack of empathy for someone with special needs, on the part of the management and the deputies who seem to have exacerbated the situation and perhaps on behalf of the wider society. The Down syndrome support community is well aware that other categories of people who have been mistreated by the police have attracted national coverage; other names have become causes célèbres. One of the troubling things about Saylor’s case is the nagging fear that the silence is not a response to careful consideration of the available evidence but a symptom that in the last analysis in the America of 2013, people with an intellectual disability simply do not count.

Editor’s note: The author contacted the headquarters of Regal Entertainment Group multiple times during the writing of this piece to comment on the Saylor case. The company thus far has not responded.

Nick Cull is a professor of communication at the University of Southern California where he directs the masters program in public diplomacy. He writes and researches about the political impact of the media and his recent books include “The Decline and Fall of the United States Information Agency: American Public Diplomacy, 1989-2001” and (with James Chapman) “Projecting Tomorrow: Science Fiction and Popular Cinema.”

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