Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Should Police Respond Differently to Suspects With Down Syndrome?

Robert Ethan Saylor, 26. Family photo.

In January, Robert Ethan Saylor–a 26-year-old Maryland man with Down syndrome–was killed at a movie theatre after an altercation with three law enforcement officers.

Saylor, who had a fascination with police and often called 911 to ask dispatchers questions, had just finished seeing Zero Dark Thirty with his aide when he refused to leave because he wanted to watch it again.

As his 18-year-old female aide went to get the car, a worker at the theater called police after Saylor refused to buy a ticket for another viewing.

Then, according to reports, three off-duty deputies who were working security at Westview Promenade shopping center arrived to the scene in an attempt to physically remove Saylor from the premises.

Lt. Scott Jewell, Sgt. Rich Rochford and Deputy First Class James Harris approached him, and according to Cpl. Jennifer Bailey, Saylor became belligerent and began to use profane language with the officers.

Bailey stated that as a result, Saylor “was put face down on the ground,” and shortly after, he began to experience a medical emergency.

After the handcuffs were removed, Saylor was rushed to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead on arrival.

Of course, the case sparked outrage and endless debate, prompting the questions: How much of a threat are individuals with Down syndrome? Did the police go too far?

In March, a grand jury came to a conclusion in this particular case and found that no crime had been committed.

However, the Chief Medical Examiner’s Office in Baltimore ruled the death a homicide in February.

At a news conference outside the county’s courthouse, Frederick County State’s Attorney J. Charles Smith said, “They felt no further investigation was necessary.”

While there are not too many reported incidents regarding law enforcement and those with Down syndrome, the American public has seen an increased level of police brutality, or, at least, an increased level of awareness as technology and social media advances are made.

In December 2012, a situation involving law enforcement and a man with Down syndrome occurred in a Vista, California neighborhood, although this particular instance didn’t end in a death.

Antonio Martinez, 21, was walking home when he was approached by police, who were in the neighborhood responding to a domestic disturbance call. Possibly feeling scared, Martinez put on the hood of his sweater and did not respond to the police, which is when things went out of hand.

According to his sister, Jessica Martinez, neighborhood men informed the police that Antonio had Down syndrome and wasn’t involved in the incident.

However, Martinez, who weighed less than 160 pounds and stands at 4 feet, 11 inches, was pepper-sprayed, hit and then thrown to the ground. Ultimately, he was taken into custody by sheriff’s deputies.

Yes, police are hired to protect and serve, but when a possible suspect has Down syndrome, is there a different protocol that should be followed?

In the case of Saylor, attorney Patrick J. McAndrew believes that the three police officers responded correctly regarding the incident.

“This was an unfortunate set of circumstances. Each of these professionals, devoted law enforcement officers, did what was necessary under the circumstances, and they did what their training dictated that they do,” he said.

The United Nations declared March 21st World Down Syndrome Day, with a goal of “raising public awareness” about Down syndrome.

Hopefully, among awareness and education, the United Nations–and all Americans–can help stop a similar situation from ever occurring again.

Jeffrey Hartinger is a writer who lives in New York City. You can visit his website at

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