The Police Had to Know

Robert Ethan Saylor was 24 years of age when he died of asphyxiation. His life probably wasn’t an easy one, having Down Syndrome, but it was his.  Even so, it was taken from him because a few police officers were just doing their job the same way they always do their job.

Via Z6Mag :

He was at the movies with a health aide the night of the incident. When the movie, Zero Dark Thirty ended, he refused to leave so employees called the police. Three deputies came to handle the situation. Saylor was handcuffed and was allegedly resisting when he had what authorities describe as a “medical emergency.” Better stated as, they found out he had down syndrome.

That last line is snappy, but wrong.  It isn’t possible the police had no clue that Saylor had Down Syndrome. He is the poster boy for it, with clear physical manifestations. While police may mistakenly think a deaf person heard their command before killing them, or a blind person could see the glint of their shield, there is no mistaking a person with Down Syndrome.



Whether the movie theater’s employees were correct in their handling of a recalcitrant moviegoer who refused to leave (or buy a new ticket) when the movie ended is one thing. No doubt in retrospect, they might have preferred to be more generous toward Saylor.  It’s unimaginable that they saw his overstaying his license as an offense worthy of death.

So the employees did what they were told to do, what most people do when they have a person who won’t follow their rules, they called the cops.


According to a law enforcement source, the 26-year-old went into distress when he was put face down on the ground. Deputies removed the handcuffs and took him to a hospital, where he was later declared deceased.


The details of death are a bit lacking. It’s not that nobody knows, but that the officers involved had something that Saylor lacked .



The deputies exercised their rights under the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights and have not made statements in the case, Bailey said.


The deputies who were with Saylor at the time of his death, identified as Lt. Scott Jewell, Sgt. Rich Rochford and Deputy First Class James Harris, continue to work their normal assignments while the case is being investigated.


It’s not there isn’t law to protect people. Indeed, there is. It’s just that it’s not only far more favorable to police than to anyone else in our society, but it’s the one law that the police scrupulously honor. While the three officers who invoked their right to be left alone remain on the job, the rest of us scramble to know how a ticket dispute ended with Saylor’s death by suffocation.  It’s a horrible way to die.



Dr. George Kirkham a criminologist and former law enforcement officer told the Post , “The circumstances surrounding Saylor’s death suggest a possible case of positional asphyxia, which often goes hand in hand with a phenomenon called sudden in-custody death syndrome.”


“Positional asphyxia is typically the result of an intense struggle and often involves a person who is handcuffed and lying on their stomach after the struggle.” Kirkham says, “People often panic and can’t catch their breath. People with larger stomachs are particularly vulnerable, because their bellies will push into their sternums, making breathing even more difficult.”


This is why it’s important to note that the police officers could not possibly have been unaware that Saylor manifested the physical appearance of a person with Down Syndrome.  What isn’t said is whether Saylor, lying on the ground in a movie theater so that cops can subdue and cuff him in the manner that affords the police the greatest degree of personal safety was accompanied by the other normal conduct:  A knee with the full weight of an officer pushing down into the small of his back?  A officer sitting on his shoulder blades?  The ubiquitous boot pressing against his spine with a police officer’s heft holding him supine?

As we don’t know the details of what was actually done to Saylor now, the likelihood that we’ll ever know the truth is slim.  What we know with certainty is that a young man is dead over what amounts to a business dispute over $11, and some cops who did their job of protecting the theater’s financial interest by use of their routine method of subduing a man who obviously had Down Syndrome.

Some will think, “wow, just wait until the lawsuit where the family will win a fortune!” Others will cry for the cops to be fired or prosecuted for Saylor’s death.  When we speak of a person needlessly killed, the issue of remedy isn’t the point. The issue is why was a human being’s life lost.

It’s not easy going through life with a disability. It’s unlikely that Saylor ever knew the joy of a young woman’s loving touch. He probably didn’t have a posse to hang out with and watch the Ravens while chugging a few brewskies. When he shopped for clothing, chances are he wasn’t very concerned with whether members of the opposite sex would think the pants made his butt look fat.  Still, he experienced love, joy, satisfaction and accomplishment, even if not the same as other people.

This was his life.  And it was taken from him for nothing by three police officers who were just doing their job, even thougy they knew, they had to know, that they were dealing with a young man with Down Syndrome.




15 comments on “The Police Had to Know

  1. Dan Z

    The only positive, if any is that this has been ruled a homicide. Im not confident that will lead to anything but its a start. The officers bill of rights that allows for such silence is awful, allowing time to see the entire investigation play out, results of exams etc, then issuing a statement. It will lead to a boiler plate statement by all three officers in which every detail of the story is tailored to respond to the results of the investigation.

  2. SHG

    First, I wouldn’t suggest that there is any positive to what happened here under any circumstances. Second, homicide is the death of one person caused by another person. It does not mean murder or manslaughter, and does not imply wrongdoing. It is not a “start.” It is nothing.

  3. Patrick H

    Sick, just sick. Until we change the culture- starting by consistently making sure every cop who violates rights, injuries, or murders is procescuted and jailed- this will keep happening.

  4. SHG

    Yes, the culture needs to change. No, the answer isn’t so simple.  More importantly, screaming for blood has proven to be disastrous when it comes to “criminals” every time someone is harmed; it’s equally unhelpful when the blood you demand is a cop’s.

  5. Susan

    Were there no witnesses? Did these “security” officers clear the theater of other patrons and the employees who had summoned them?

  6. Dan Z

    Perhaps positive was too strong a term, I agree there are no positives here. Generally even in situations like this homicide is not the finding as it relates to LEO, at least in my experience looking at things like this.

  7. SHG

    Theaters tend to be dark and have seats that obscure views. Police tend to ask people to stand back. After something bad happens, they sometimes instruct witnesses not to talk abut it except to police. It happens. But since the information comes through news accounts, asking questions tends not to be fruitful as there is no one to answer. It only invites speculation.

  8. SHG

    I understood your use of the word “positive.” My response was only to note that every cloud does not have a silver lining, and we shouldn’t suggest there is anything “good” about something so wrong.

  9. pml

    In reading the story it says he was accompanied by a Health Aide. Where were they when all this took place?

  10. PlacidAir

    When did “to serve and protect” get focused away from people and toward businesses? The notion that a theater’s $11 was more important than the safety and reasonable outcome for a human being is obscene. The 3 “officers” involved should be fired, and charged with murder. At the very least they should be charged with negligent homocide — since they were clearly not operating in a safe manner.

  11. SHG

    As bad as this was, no one (not even cops) should be charged unless there was a crime. Outcome does not necessarily equal crime. There may well be a crime, but it can’t be determined based on the information available.  And no, failure to “operate in safe manner” does not constitute negligent homicide. What it does demonstrate is the horrific callousness shown this young man.

  12. Dad Fourkids

    “Some will think, “wow, just wait until the lawsuit where the family will win a fortune!” Others will cry for the cops to be fired or prosecuted for Saylor’s death. When we speak of a person needlessly killed, the issue of remedy isn’t the point. The issue is why was a human being’s life lost.”

    It doesn’t get any more basic than this.

    Not a month goes by without a story very similar to this one making the headlines (albeit usually just the hometown), and one has to wonder why that is. Certainly the first few times could be seen as regrettable incidents taking place in diverse corners of the country, new ground for law enforcement and the disabled advocates circles. But we have been reading about these injuries and deaths now for going on 20 years and still the message is not striking home.

    Had these officers had the most rudimentary training in how to work with the neurologically challenged Robert would probably still be with us.

    It is beyond tragic that we keep running the same loop to the inevitable end, where a person of diminished copacity runs afoul of someone’s rules, and when security shows up they go for the hammerlock seeking to establish control on an individual who cannot fully understand the commands being shouted at them as they struggle to survive the assault.

    As far as the inevitable filing of a lawsuit and predictable out of court settlement which will occur, while it is tru it will not bring the deceased back, it is unfortunately the ONLY language that those in positions of authority in the myriad police forces understand.

    Sometimes those with typically functioning neurological processes can be as hard to teach as a young man with DS.

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