Death by Down Syndrome


Zero Dark Thirty Death

Earlier this year a young man with Down Syndrome sat in a Maryland theater watching “Zero Dark Thirty.” He remained seated for the next showing. Moments later he was dead.

Three off-duty sheriff’s deputies having hand-cuffed him, stood over as he asphyxiated. Ruled a homicide by the county coroner, his death is attributed to his having “anger problems” and conditions associated with Down syndrome according to the medical examiner. A Frederick County grand jury failed to indict the 3 deputies on criminal charges.

Robert “Ethan” Saylor’s homicide attributed to DS

Out One

The deputies are out of jeopardy, the theater manager initiating the confrontational action is out of a paid movie ticket, and the family of Robert “Ethan” Saylor are out one son.

Does not seem fair does it? Unless you fall into category 1 or 2 that is.

Positive Change

I have come to know a dad who is blessed by a child with Down syndrome at Little Bird’s Dad. He (LBD) chronicles the events and coverage of Ethan’s homicide in a special section of his blog site.

He also attempted to chronicle the training available to professional law enforcement officers for addressing citizens with Down syndrome. You will find nothing in that section. There are none.

As a dad with a child blessed by Down syndrome I am furious. As a law enforcement officer for over 2 decades, I am furious. As a person feeling the double edges of this sword, I am focused.

Will You Stand in the Gap

LBD & I are beginning the process to unite a team passionate for change. We want to make a meaningful contribution by developing a training & awareness curriculum for cops when confronting our kids, friends & neighbors with DS.

This is not an attack against the deputies, the movie manager, the medical examiner, NGO, or any bureaucracy. This is a laser-focused effort to create something useful for law enforcement and the emergency services community who engage citizens with DS on a regular basis.

The more we encourage our kids to live independently, the more often they shall interact with law enforcement or public safety. We want to develop a fair playing field.

There is an unfortunate gap of knowledge & understanding in policing. Will you stand in the gap with us?

Ezekiel 22:30

“I searched for a man among them who would build up the wall and stand in the gap before Me for the land, so that I would not destroy it; but I found no one.”  

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Categories: Personal Perspective

27 replies »

  1. I am so sad reading this. My support and prayers are with all families who are associated with children with this disease. I jut wish more people could understand this.

  2. I saw your link back to my blog. I’m SO glad to hear that there is a law enforcement officer who shares the belief that what happened to Robert Saylor was wrong. I am concerned, however, that the focus on further training is not addressing the issue of what those officers did. I’d love to hear from a law enforcement perspective. My honest feeling is that those men already had the training they needed, but chose not to utilize it. I just don’t see why putting a man to the ground was an appropriate response, let alone having him face down for so long. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

    Mac McLemore, as another parent of a child with Down syndrome, I am truly appreciative of your expression of support and prayer. I’d like to say, however, that Down syndrome isn’t a disease, and we generally don’t love when it is referred to as such. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for your support. I can’t tell you how much it means when someone who is outside the Down syndrome support community expresses support like you did.

    • Hi & thank you. Reading your post gave me a different perspective & I appreciate your honesty. Although I have been in policing over 2 decades & a city Chief of Police, I pull no punches when taking a critical look at cop culture. I based my doctoral research on it & though we do amazing things at times, we do horrible things at times.

      My reply is long, detailed & graphic, but always respectful of you in the sense of giving details of events experienced by Ethan based on officers’ training and tactics.

      Don’t discount the value of police training, or the need for more of it. As you will see, it is why these officers responded the way they did. That, though does not make it right.

      I cannot speak to their mindset or intentions, but I do not agree with the way this was handled. With what is known, I agree with you that going hands on, restraining, cuffing and leaving him on the ground totally negates the universal use of force continuum. The use of force continuum guides the way officers handle situations.

      Link gives you clear explanation. Re:

      If these deputies were certified by the state POST council (Peace Officers Standards and Training) & I assume they were, training is pretty universal & generic about dealing with any persons despite race, gender, cognitive ability, etc. Unfortunately cops can act like machines based on their training. Programmed to address matters based on SOP, and not compassion.

      I am not giving you the company line, or defending them. I am clueing you into the cop culture. If taught to approach a car in certain manner to write a ticket, officers often use this same “tactical” approach for trucks, motorcycles or 18-wheelers. There is no deciphering difference. Unless you were specifically trained or made aware of differences.

      My experiential guess is (Following the use of force continuum) officers arrive – physical presence does not influence Ethan to exit. Officers take that as passive resistance. They ask him to leave & nothing happens – now command presence fails. Officer goes with “soft-hand” tactic by touching him & Ethan backs away probably emphatically saying “NO.”

      This is where officers, having been trained to address DS or similar disabilities, should have backed off. Giving ground is never a bad thing in police matters. Awareness would have cued them into de-escalating the situation through communications or separation. Ethan was not trying to escape, so taking a few steps back would not have threated him or officers. Plus 3 on 1 places everyone at edge.

      Without this training knowledge, Officers ratchet their response up to hands-on control tactics such as wrist lock or arm-bar escort to physically remove him from theater. Ethan becomes more agitated and his response is resistance. Officers physically take him to the ground. Because of his size & the enclosed area, the 3 officers must force his arms behind his back. Interlocking 3 sets of handcuffs takes time and coordination between the officers, prolonging the time spent compressing his lungs with their weight as they probably placed knees in his back or sat upon him while wringing both hands back to be cuffed.

      Now that Ethan is in their custody & control, he is also in their “care.” Cops are obligated to render aid to ensure safety even if you sprayed them with mace, tasered them, shot them or yes; laid them on their chest with hands cuffed.

      This is graphic & only my assumption based on years of experience and study. I’m not defending them. Oh, my God it breaks my heart, but I am saying that without training specific to special needs citizens, officers handle most matters in a cookie cutter style.

      I was a SWAT Operator and commander for 16 years, and practiced a Contain, Control, De-escalate approach to many situations as opposed to ramming through the front door. Was it that critical for the next movie viewing to start on time that they could not have used this approach?

      Please understand my position on this as a dad of child w/DS & a life long cop. It cuts both ways, so I do not have the luxury of a singular perspective. I know how we are trained & what is expected. I also know that it is our familial and moral obligations to take this tragedy & ensure no other citizen suffers because a lack of awareness & a one-size-fits-all approach to applying the use of force continuum.

      I’m thankful for coming to know Little Bird’s Dad at & trust that while we cannot stop the rogue or deviant officers who do not deserve to wear the shield of a public servant, I do believe we can provide valuable awareness to officers in dealing with our special needs brother & sisters.

      God bless you and I thank you for your passion & approach,

      • Scott, thank you for the detailed response. I have a lot to say in response. I’m going to crack open a beer (it’s been a long day), marinate over what you have written, and try to put some words to how I’m feeling. I’m glad to have met you. Check out this advocacy group if you haven’t already:
        There are a lot of voices on there who feel as I do.

  3. Totally understand. Visited the FB site and “liked” it. Also, Little Bird’s Dad & I have communicated more directly via e-mail ( As posted, I have to deal with both edges of this sword.

    While you marinate (great term), do know that I agree with you. I have the luxury of perspective inside the cop culture, so I’m going to share it with you. Not for defense, but for transparency. Enjoy the beer.

    • Thank you. I have very conflicted feelings about cop culture to be honest. I want to support y’all; I think it is noble, hard, scary work. But I also live in Oakland, CA. Not the yuppie gentrified part. The East Oakland part. You may understand my dilemma, then. Anyways. I do think we see eye to eye on Robert Saylor’s death. It is the bigger context that I’m concerned about. My post will go up tomorrow. Cheers.

  4. Chief,

    Thanks for a great explanation of the use-of-force continuum and the police perspective. And a great passage from Ezekiel, too!!

    I’m outraged – and heartbroken – at the death of Ethan, and my heart cracks every time I see his photo (his red hair and ear-to-ear grin reminds me of my own Little Bird).

    For those reading Chief Silverii’s post, our goal is to get information out to those first-responders and law-enforcement officers that face these situations every day. I believe that 99% of our police community are decent, hard-working individuals with a conscience – there are always “bad apples”, but we are focused on the “good apples” – those men and women who put their life and safety on the line every day “to protect and serve”.

    I hope that others in the DS community are willing to take up the issues of brutality by off-duty sheriffs, recompense for the loss to the Saylor family, the over-reaction by Regal Theater employees, the non-responsiveness from DS Advocacy Groups, etc., etc.

    Knowledge is power, and getting knowledge to those on the “front-lines” is paramount. If we can make sure that the “Bright Blue Line” has the information and knowledge in interacting with citizens with DS, Ethan’s death won’t be in vain.

    Thanks, Scott, for your time, energy, support, and knowledge!

    Won’t you help – come stand in the gap with us.

    Rock on!
    Little Bird’s Dad

  5. Thank you all for your kind words and support for my nephew, Ethan. Nothing will bring him back, but it’s somewhat comforting knowing there are so many people whom we have never met, who share our sorrow.
    Thank you!

  6. Thank you for what you are doing. I am the mom of an 11 year old boy with DS and the wife of a retired law enforcement officer. This situation has been haunting me since I heard of it and I hope justice will prevail for Ethan Saylor. At the same time I am saddened at the backlash I am seeing at the police department as a whole because I know there are many good men and women serving.

    I am happy to stand in the gap and pray but I would also encourage you to consider the autism community and really, the developmental disability community as a whole. People with autism do not have physical characteristics as those with DS do (not that it made a difference for Ethan Saylor.) The diagnosis rate is something like 1 out of 50 now. Many of these kids are growing up without adequate supports and services. There is going to be a real problem as they reach adulthood. Law enforcement and the public need to be aware of autism as well.

    • Hi Marya,
      Thank you for Standing in the Gap with Little Bird’s Dad ( & I along with the growing team of positive prayer warriors and activists. Since you were a part of the fraternity of police families, you are aware of the cop culture.

      I have to be careful to not appear to be defending anyone, but training & awareness are key. It will not bring Ethan back, it will not indict the three deputies and it will not heal our hearts broken over this tragedy.

      It is solely intended as an earnest effort for preventing another absurd incident that leaves a Special Needs family minus one.

      I will tell you that I also serve on the IACP’s Research Advisory Committee & there is work going on for addressing people with autism. The rate is alarming.

      I’ll confess that before my Super Hero was born I knew nothing about dealing with the special needs community. I was not uncaring, just untrained on the topic. Your husband can tell you that topics of focus are not what you individually care about, they are what is important to the policing community. That is why it is critical to gain the support of a national / international policing body for supporting this movement.

      Great Good Friday and Bless You,

  7. Such a heart breaking tragedy and it highlights one of the areas that during my career on patrol really needed much more work. So often in our society people who work for government focus on the letter of the law, rather than the spirit. As a society in general, the culture expects instant gratification, also known is if I do X, then Y will automatically happen. The fact that people do not fall into regularly ordered boxes that perfectly fit expectations is a great source of our difficulties because of the “cookie cutter” approach.

    I was fortunate in that prior to my career in law enforcement, I worked as an “independent living trainer” to work with special needs clients and also for a time at a state hospital for the severely and profoundly developmentally disabled. This experience, as well as some personal life experiences prepared me more fully for handling special needs people, the mentally ill and even helped with those who were colliding with the law for other reasons.
    Too little attention is given to encourage or support an officer’s compassion, understanding or people skills in the academy or in field training. I find this particularly tragic because as a peace officer, when reason, compassion, discretion and wisdom come together, many lives are touched and turned from a dead end which begins the healing of a community.
    I pray that more people will join this effort to reach, teach and support officers to better handle special needs people and the mentally ill, as well as to remember that it is a very fine line to walk between too hard and too soft. It remains a very dangerous world out there, even when officers do everything right.

    • Juli,
      Your depth of experience in this life continues to amaze me! You are correct about letter v. spirit. I try teaching my officers the power of compassion and discretion. Unfortunately the culture clings to policy when it best serves the officers or bureaucracy

      • Aww, thank you, Scott! When I get the chance I try to present information to change the frame of reference to better relate how we do our job impacts those we are supposed to be serving.
        What is sad, is that I can picture in my mind how I would have handled Ethan. Rather than setting up an adversarial situation by requesting or ordering him to leave, I would have asked him questions about food, friends, etc. until I found something that piqued his interest and built on that to encourage him to go to something interesting, rather than being ordered to leave. It may have taken a bit more time than the theater manager would have liked, but it would have been a far better solution than what happened.
        I have used this technique on both the mentally ill and special needs people with great success.
        I also think it would be a great idea to add two weeks to the FTO program to include one week each spending time at local programs for the developmentally disabled and the mental facilities, following case managers through their daily routine. It would help to reduce discomfort and allow officers sufficient time to observe best practices in managing these groups.

      • Scott, Can we get Juli on the panel?
        Juli, your posts are phenomenal. I really like the technique you describe in the second post – defusing a situation like you suggest. With Ethan, it would have been quicker than you think – he was a big fan of all things police, from what I have been reading.

      • Little Bird’s Dad, thank you for your kind words. Hearing that Ethan loved all things police makes this so much more heartbreaking. The hope is that we can all learn from this and come together and support each other to improve safety for special needs people and our peace officers.

  8. I’m really impressed with your writing skills as well as with the layout on your blog.
    Is this a paid theme or did you customize it yourself?
    Either way keep up the nice quality writing, it is
    rare to see a great blog like this one today.

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