The mother of a young man with Down syndrome who was killed by police officers in Maryland told Congress on Tuesday that federal standards were needed to ensure law enforcement agents received the training they needed.
“I want to tell you that I am here as a grieving mother. It’s been 15 months. I’m not sure that it will ever stop,” Patti Saylor testified before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights.
Saylor’s son, Ethan, tried to stay for a second viewing of the movie “Zero Dark Thirty” in January 2013. But movie theater staff called security because Ethan hadn’t purchased a second ticket. Three off-duty Frederick County sheriff’s deputies forcefully removed Ethan from the theater, even though an aide told them that Ethan had Down syndrome and his mother was on her way.
“The one officer approached him, nicely at first, but demanded that he leave,” Saylor told the senators. “Ethan was trying to buy a ticket using his cell phone. He had no money, he did not drive for himself. He needed to depend on others to get the things he wanted in life, and he wanted to stay and watch the movie.”
“The officers proceeded to physically remove him from the theater, dragged him from his seat, tried to handcuff him, when that didn’t work while he was standing, they placed him on the ground, put handcuffs on, and my son died of asphyxiation on that floor of that movie theater for that $10 ticket.”
In her written testimony, Saylor said that her son died after his throat was crushed by the officers.
“While anyone, disability or not, could have been injured or killed in Ethan’s situation that evening, our family also remains deeply concerned that Ethan’s rights, as an individual with a disability, were violated. The autopsy showed that Ethan’s larynx was crushed while being restrained by the officers. The manner in which Ethan was restrained that evening, with his hands behind his back and forced to lie face down on his stomach, has for years been considered excessive due to the chance of positional asphyxia.”
Saylor also said that Ethan posed no threat.
“He was not threatening, he was not in crisis. He had a problem that needed solving: how do I stay and watch the movie when my aide is telling me it is time to go home? I would have solved that problem in literally 5 minutes.”
After Ethan’s death, Saylor and her family joined with disability rights advocates in Maryland to urge an investigation into the incident. Governor Martin O’Malley later created a task force to examine statewide policies regarding the training of law enforcement when it came to interacting with intellectually disabled individuals. Saylor called on Congress to take similar actions at the federal level.
“Since Ethan’s death, we have been on our own advocacy journey to achieve justice for Ethan, while at the same time ensuring what happened to Ethan never happens to another member of the Down syndrome and disability community ever again.”
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