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The Boston Globe

Opinion

JOAN VENNOCHI

Death over an $11.50 movie ticket

Robert Ethan Saylor

AP

Robert Ethan Saylor

Whatever happened to compassion and common sense?

The death of Robert Ethan Saylor makes you wonder.

Continue reading below

Saylor, a 26-year-old Maryland man with Down syndrome, died on Jan. 12 while in police custody. According to the Washington Post, Saylor had been watching “Zero Dark Thirty” at a movie theater in Frederick, Md. When he refused to leave after the film was over, a theater manager called three off-duty sheriff’s deputies who were working a security detail at a nearby shopping center. Saylor had to pay or go, they were told.

The deputies, who weren’t wearing uniforms, went to the theater. A spokeswoman for the sheriff’s office told the Post that Saylor cursed at them and began hitting and kicking them. They restrained him with three sets of handcuffs. He ended up on the ground and ultimately died of asphyxiation.

The chief medical examiner’s office in Baltimore ruled the death a homicide. The three deputies were placed on paid administrative leave. Prosecutors are deciding whether to bring criminal charges or to present evidence to a grand jury.

The sheriff’s office told the Post that deputies receive annual training on the use of force, as well as in dealing with people with mental health issues.

But how much training does it take to understand that a person with Down syndrome can’t process information in typical fashion? It should have been obvious to the theater staff and the deputies. After all, Saylor’s intellectual disability was written all over his face.

As an editorial in the Frederick News Post put it, “What is most unfortunate about this tragedy is that it never should have happened in the first place — particularly over an $11.50 movie ticket.”

Why did it happen? Why didn’t compassion and common sense click in? Ignorance probably had something to do with it. A general lack of knowledge about people with Down syndrome is aided by society’s tendency to treat the disabled, just like the elderly, as if they are invisible — until they force their way into our vision, the way Saylor did in that theater.

There are 54 million Americans living with disabilities, but most of their fellow Americans don’t get to know them, and many don’t even notice their existence. Those with intellectual and developmental disabilities live in different worlds, with outside contact often limited to close family members and caretakers.

As a result, “there are a lot of myths and misconceptions out there about people with disabilities,” said Nancy Alterio, executive director of the Disabled Persons Protection Commission in Massachusetts.

Her commission works with a partnership formed in 1999 between law enforcement and human service agencies, which specifically seeks to address crimes against individuals with disabilities. Because of communication problems and physical issues, the disabled are especially vulnerable to sexual assault and abuse. When they report it, they are frequently not believed, said Alterio.

Of course there are special challenges in dealing with individuals with intellectual and development disabilities, especially in high-stress situations. As one advocacy group, The Arc of Maryland, explained it in a press release responding to Saylor’s death, there are many ways to help a person with a disability who is “upset, scared, anxious, and feeling threatened.” Force is not considered a good option; de-escalating the situation is a better choice.

Knowing where to turn for help is part of the “Building Partnerships Initiative” in Massachusetts.” Law enforcement has trained us, and we have trained law enforcement,” said Alterio. The main lesson is, “When you’re out of your element, call and get someone there who can help.”

In Saylor’s case, he was alone because an aide who accompanied him to the movie apparently left to get the car. The incident might have ended differently, if only the theater staff and deputies waited to see if someone returned to help Saylor exit, or if they tried to contact a relative who could assist them. Giving up one ticket worth $11.50 would be another obvious choice.

After Saylor’s death, there are suggestions that a training program for local law enforcement officials be set up in his name. It won’t return Saylor to his parents, but in lieu of compassion and common sense, it seems more than necessary.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.

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