Lawsuit filed in theater death case

Photo of hands with handcuffs on taken from behind.
A case of excessive force?

The family of Robert “Ethan” Saylor, whose tragic death in early 2013 brought national attention to the issue of police response to disability-related behavior, filed a lawsuit October 17 in federal court.

The lawsuit names the Frederick County, Maryland sheriff’s office, the three police officers involved in the incident, and the movie theater where Saylor died as defendants, according to the Baltimore Sun. The family is requesting compensatory and punitive damages.

“Far too often police treat those with mental or developmental disabilities as dangerous criminals rather as people who may actually be in need of their help and protection,” the Baltimore Sun wrote in a September 5 editorial. “There’s no evidence Mr. Saylor represented a threat to the officers who were attempting to subdue him.

“Granted, he may have disobeyed their orders to leave the theater, but no one should have to lose his life simply because he wanted to see a movie a second time without paying for another ticket.”

On January 12, Saylor, who had Down syndrome, became agitated at the end of a screening of “Zero Dark Thirty” at a Regal Cinemas in Frederick County. Three police officers responded by handcuffing Saylor, holding him on his stomach for one or two minutes.

Saylor immediately began having breathing difficulties. The officers attempted to perform CPR, but he was dead within minutes.

In February, a medical examiner determined that the case was a homicide, which in this case meant that Saylor would not have died but for the police officer’s actions.

In March, a Frederick County grand jury declined to indict the three police officers. The county Sheriff’s Office’s internal investigation found that the officers had done nothing wrong and been trained correctly.

More than 340,000 have signed a petition for the sheriff’s office to reopen Saylor’s case, according to the Baltimore Sun editorial.

“Sadly, this tragedy could have been prevented. Sometimes there are circumstances that present unique challenges when it comes to dealing with individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities, especially in high stress situations,” said Kate Fialkowski, executive Director of the Arc of Maryland, in a blog post in February. “With proper training these officers would have realized there was a better way to work with Robert, as opposed to simply using force – an extreme and unnecessary reaction.”