Over the course of the past several months, widely publicized cases of malfeasance on the part of law enforcement officers in Ferguson, MO; Cleveland, OH; Staten Island, NY; Alexandria, VA; Baltimore, MD, and many others besides, have brought issues such as racial profiling, the militarization of municipal law enforcement departments, and the high rates of inner city joblessness, poverty, and crime to the forefront of what is often (and fatuously) called “our national conversation.”
Yet one particular case of police brutality is in danger of being forgotten amidst the current strum und drang over the death of Freddy Gray; that of another Maryland resident named Robert Ethan Saylor.
On the evening of January 12, 2013, the 26 year old Saylor, who had Downs Syndrome, was accompanied by his caretaker to the Regal Cinemas in New Market, MD, to see “Zero Dark Thirty.” After the film, Saylor’s caretaker left him in the theater to get the car, during which time Saylor went back to the theater because he wanted to see it again. Told he would have to pay for a ticket or else leave, he didn’t. Enter three Frederick County Sheriff’s Officers who were moonlighting as Westview Mall security officers: Scott Jewell, Rich Rochford, and James Harri. According to the Washington Post this is what happened next:
According to witness reports, Saylor cursed at the first deputy who asked him to leave. When the other deputies arrived, the three pulled Ethan, who weighed 294 pounds, from his seat as he wailed and resisted, witnesses said. Several people heard the officers tell Saylor that he was going to jail.
They handcuffed the 5’6″, nearly 300-pound Saylor and threw him to the ground, during which time a witness recalled hearing Saylor call out for his mother. He died of asphyxiation shortly after. The medical examiner’s report, which revealed that Saylor’s larynx was fractured during the incident, ruled the case a homicide.
That March, a grand jury, working from a report compiled by none other than the Frederick Country’s Sheriff’s Office, failed to indict the three sheriff’s deputies. The Justice Department opened an investigation several months later. The Frederick County Sheriff, Charles Jenkins, met the news of the DOJ probe with supreme insouciance, telling the Washington Post that he was confident Justice investigators will review the case and say:
You know what? There is absolutely no excessive force, no inappropriate actions or wrongdoing by these deputies. This is simply an unfortunate situation where this man had a medical emergency while being escorted out of the theater.
Then-Maryland Governor, and current presidential aspirant, Martin O’Malley formed a commission to look into the case six months after Saylor’s death. Meanwhile, this past October a federal judge ruled that a wrongful death suit brought by the family against the three officers involved could move forward.
In his ruling, U.S. District Judge William M. Nickerson noted with disgust that “a man died over the cost of a movie ticket.”
This week, U.S. Magistrate Judge Stephanie A. Gallagher ordered the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office to turn over relevant parts of the personnel files of the three officers to the Saylor family’s attorneys. A request to the DOJ press office for comment on its ongoing civil rights investigation into the Saylor case has, as of this writing, gone unanswered.
While the tragic events which unfolded last week in Baltimore have shined a light on race and civilian-police relations, we would do well to remember the murder of Ethan Saylor at the hands of moonlighting mall cops.
Violence against—much less the murder of—people with Downs Syndrome, who are among society’s most vulnerable and, for many families, their most treasured members, should be condemned in the strongest possible terms and not dismissed as merely, in the words of Sheriff Charles Jenkins, an “unfortunate situation.”