CNN: Five reactions to my Ethan Saylor essay

Yesterday, CNN published an essay of mine on the Ethan Saylor case. Following the advice of some friends, I emphasized a classic point from disability studies: We are all, at best, temporarily able bodied. This hook seems to have worked as the piece is receiving a good readership.

For new readers, twitter followers, facebook friends. I also wrote an essay about Saylor for The Nation, in which I talked about other disabled people who ran afoul of the police, and what lessons we might draw from that. I actually have a large file now of cases like this. I’ve also written about what I’m calling the “cult of compliance.” I think disability cases serve as warnings for a general erosion of our civil liberties.

Here are several points that emerged from emails, comments, and just me re-thinking the issue as I re-read the essay over the day.

First – “People-First Language” – I don’t write my titles. Editors write titles that they think will drive clicks, because it’s all about getting people to start reading. If no one reads the essay, it doesn’t matter what it says. My editor (who I love, in case she reads this!) chose – “Justice for Down syndrome man who died in movie theater,” and that didn’t please a number of commentators focused on language. I’m glad people are talking about this, as I think it does matter when we begin by emphasizing on our shared humanity, and then raise the conditions that make us more or less distinct. That said, we use qualifiers before nouns all the time, “Tall boy,” “smart girl,” “blond walrus” “sick child.” The question, for me, is whether “downs” is an appropriate adjective. I don’t think so, but I’ve been having trouble articulating why Downs is different than other adjectives – even other diagnostic adjectives. Any thoughts?

P.S.: If you want to get people to change their speech, ALL-CAPS emails is a poor way to convince people of anything. Be nice out there.

Second – Blaming the aide: In the comments, a lot of people, ignorant of the case, blamed the aide. Of course other people, ignorant of the case, blamed the parents or the theater manager or the police. There’s a lot of blaming. People argue that she should have stopped Ethan from going back in the theater, she should have handled it different, she should have just paid for the movie. Related, people suggest that Ethan should never have been allowed out into “normal” society if he was so dangerous.

Actually, one of the points that Dennis Debbault made to me, in my interview, is that the family should have had a safety plan written out, and that the aide could have given it to the officers when they arrived on the scene. In fact, all families should have safety plans developed, as an aside, though if communication skills are good maybe you don’t need it written out.  I don’t have a good safety plan and I’m thinking of how to fix that. But to argue that the aide must be able to physically stop Ethan from going anywhere, that it’s her job to restrain him, that it’s the mother’s job for thinking Ethan could handle “normal” society and should have just got Ethan a DVD …. well, that kind of talk needs to be stopped. The aide may have made mistakes, and no doubt regrets them, but she was advocating patience, she called Ethan’s mom for help, she was trying to do the right things.  When the deputies arrived, she was trying to get Ethan to cool off and then was going to try again. She was young and perhaps inexperienced (I don’t know many details about her), but she didn’t cause Ethan’s death. People with disabilities need to find ways to fit into typical society, even when it’s hard, even when it’s disruptive.

Third –  Blaming the deputies: Well, I do blame the deputies. But if you read the report, there’s no sign that this was a case of deliberate police brutality. There’s no sign that the police decided to teach Ethan a lesson, or got mad and violent, or otherwise did something glaringly wrong. Every witness says they stayed calm and professional. In some ways, it makes the case worse. If a deputy lost his or her temper and threw Ethan to the ground in anger, we could easily identify the culprit, the wrong action, and hold them accountable. But if, in the full calmness of reason, the deputies decided the best course of action was to throw Ethan to the ground, forcibly get his arms behind his back, perhaps put a knee on his back (that is contested by witnesses), and in that process asphyxiate him … it’s scarier. They thought they were doing the right thing.  .

What does seem likely is that they either weren’t trained or ignored their training, which leads me to …

Fourth – Training: If the deputies were trained (my evidence suggests that training was offered in 2012) and ignored it, that raises a serious question about the remedy that most advocates in this case are proposing. Training is good, but training has to infuse an organization’s culture in order to have an effect. Training is really just the start. I’m hoping we’ll figure out more as the story goes forward.

Fifth – Media Narrative – At 8:00 P.M CST yesterday, the essay has 1200 Facebook shares. As I write this morning, it has over 11,000. (Facebook shares start at about 10 clicks on the essay to 1 share, with that ratio getting smaller as time goes on and people are referred by like-minded readers. Today will be closer to 5:1 is my guess, but CNN doesn’t release reader numbers). Last night, WUSA-9 ran another piece on the case on local news. More Maryland politicians have signed on, asking the governor for an investigation. In this era of 24-hour news cycles, for a story that so many of us despaired of ever making matter to a wide swathe of people, it’s exciting to see this story take hold over the course of August. A group of us have been fighting for months to make this story spread, and now it’s in the public consciousness. I’m going to speak on AM radio tonight and NPR next week.

And if Martin O’Malley really wants to be president, he’ll call for an investigation I think, as the ball is in his court.

11 Replies to “CNN: Five reactions to my Ethan Saylor essay”

  1. Bruce Campbell says:

    David, hi — just meeting you and your good work as result of the CNN coverage. Even though you've got skin in the game, I'm grateful for your picking up this banner and helping to wave it (in fact, it's giving me ideas for literal banners for our Buddy Walk in Norther VT in October).

    I think this notion of educating law enforcement is important, and I wonder if anybody is collecting not only the stories you've cited but others as well. Here's one that just occurred up here in Burlington (this follow-on story focuses on the officer, but the incident itself is what's germaine):

    Let me know if you know of anybody that's logging these, kind of a Southern Poverty Law Project for disability issues, I guess. Keep up the good work!

    1. David Perry says:

      Bruce – thanks for writing. I do NOT know of a SPLP equivalent for disability cases. It would have made my research much easier, as I've just put links and notes together myself. I'm adding your case to my file, but I know my research is only haphazard here – identifying broader trends without digging into the deep social science necessary to build a full data set. We need an organization to do it.

      If you find someone tracking this more fully, let me know.

      Thanks for commenting.


  2. Brad Dembs says:

    First, thank you for your well-written and balanced approach to this issue. The missteps and failures in police interaction with people with disabilities is a problem that occurs far too often and without nearly enough discussion. Your piece, and this follow up, is an excellent jumping off point to a larger conversation that needs to be had.

    As far as People-First Language is concerned, one difference between most qualifiers and those describing a person's disability is that people (or walruses) are not often discriminated against for being tall, smart, or blond. People-First Language is essentially an advocacy tool, used to emphasize the notion that a person's disability does not define him or her. Considering the long history of discrimination against one of the largest and least acknowledged minority groups, this is one small way to try and shift perspective.

    Perhaps your editor would be interested in this press kit, published by the National Disability Rights Network.

    It is important that we take all possible steps, as small or inconsequential as they may seem, to protect and advance the rights of people with disabilities. Thank you again for doing your part.

    Brad Dembs
    Disability Rights Attorney
    Lansing, MI

    1. David Perry says:

      "Considering the long history of discrimination against one of the largest and least acknowledged minority groups, this is one small way to try and shift perspective." – Well said. That articulates my perception exactly, thanks.

      Good press kit! A useful resource.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I have been reading articles for the past several days about the incident, with yours being the most recent. Unfortunately, all too many people are accepting it as a journalist's factual report, not as an essay written with the purpose of raising awareness.

    So many of the commenters are using your essay to simply call for almost a lynching of the police officers. The Department of Justice investigation will do nothing to change these people's minds.

    I have to ask if you read the witness statements, particularly regarding Mr. Saylor's behavior outside the theater before the aide left to get the car, how she was "a little frightened" and called his mother. Other people leaving the theater indicated they moved far away so as to get around him. There was much more going on besides just a young man wanting to watch the movie again.

    A young man died. The police did their reports. Witnesses gave their statements. The medical examiner called it "homicide" which many people just assume means murder and somebody has to pay, especially the police officers. The Grand Jury came back with no indictment after hearing all the accounts.

    Your essay is praised as being well-written and balanced, yet contains nothing about the young man punching storefront windows, a frightened aide, and people trying to avoid being near him during his outburst. One article said he pushed a theater employee (as in straight-armed) to get back inside (I have not found that particular witness statement as yet – some are very hard to read in pdf form). The statements from people who could see indicate the police did not stomp on his neck, that they did not put him a choke hold, or put him in a face-down position for any longer than absolutely necessary.

    If you have not read deeper into what happened, could you please do so and then, if you find it reasonable, amend your essay to reflect the other side of this encounter and ask that it be published as this one was?

    I am using Anonymous as an ID because I do not have Google account or URL, etc. and do not wish to put my e-mail address here because of the vitriolic attitude many have exhibited about this whole issue. I would be happy to provide an e-mail directly to you, but do not see a way on this screen to do so.

    1. David Perry says:

      No problem using Anonymous. And if anyone harasses anyone on my blog, they will be warned, deleted, and then banned. So there's that. Disagreement is welcome here. You could sign your comment "Joe," or "Agamemnon" or "Hermione" or whatever, so we have something to call you.

      So my essay was published on CNN-Opinion, and anyone who misses that isn't paying attention. That said, CNN rigorously fact checked my piece and I stand by my points. Yes, I could have mentioned Ethan hit a window earlier to express frustration, but I also could have mentioned that the deputies in that department killed an unarmed man (Vail) around the same time. On the other hand, I describe the police as professional and calm, because that's what the sources say they were. And I make it clear Ethan was swearing at them. I could have added many facts, but chose to focus on the moment in which the deputies were sworn at and decided to put their hands on him, as that's the moment of transition in which Ethan ended up dead. Does that seem fair to you? It satisfies my training for placing the situation in a balanced, clear way.

      Yes, I am an advocate, but I believe the facts advocate for themselves without hyperbole from me.

      I have read every word of the report. I have seen no credible evidence that Ethan straight-armed someone or, in fact, initiated contact with any person during the incident. I'd be happy to be corrected on that. There was, to be sure, a lot of misinformation in the first few weeks from both sides – the deputies beating him or choking him, Ethan lashing out, etc. That's clearly, to me, not what happened.

      On the whole, I think my essay is measured. It lays out the situation. It lays out what we know about police training. And then, as an opinion piece, it says – here's how I think we should respond. I don't expect everyone to agree, but I'm satisfied with the effort.

      Now – does this satisfy you at all?

    2. Anonymous says:

      Your reply explains why the essay was written as it was and "where you're coming from." I have not seen the entire report, but only the pdfs of witness statements. The pdfs of the police report are illegible when I try to download them.

      You also said above that you do not choose titles and, I assume, you did not select the "story highlights."

      Hopefully the Department of Justice investigation can shed more light. As a published author, as well as an interested father, perhaps you could push to make sure that information is forthcoming, regardless of what the result may be.

      Just call me Fred.

    3. David Perry says:

      Fred – I will definitely write about the findings of any investigation with as much clarity and objectivity as I can muster. I think I've made it clear in my various postings that there's no need to assume wrong-doing of the deputies. Freak accidents happen.

      That said – I know what the experts advise in cases like Saylor's: invest time and patience and do not make physical contact. Not one police report (let alone the witnesses) imply that anyone was threatened by Saylor – it was just time to start them movie, Saylor said, "Fuck you" to the deputies, and his life hung on the balance. They could have chosen patience. Instead, they made a different choice and Saylor is now dead.

      I know how often contacts between law enforcement and disabled people result in tragedy. I know about deaf people tasered because they couldn't hear police commands. I know about people with Down syndrome beaten and tasered because they didn't listen fast enough. I know about police shot with their own weapon because they got too close. And I know about lots of cases like Wrana's – police charging into a home, getting to close, finding a person with a disability in a panic, and killing that person. These cases happen too often.

      I know about the culture of compliance that has been moving through law enforcement over the last 10 years, in which people make the mistake of not responding instantly to police commands, and get attacked for it – tasered, shot, pepper sprayed, beaten. These cases transcend disability, but disability can point the way to the problem in American police culture.

      So what I want to know is a precise chain of events from the moment the deputies touched Saylor to the moment the medic found him dead. Why didn't the deputies notice? Why didn't they do an emergency trach? Debbault did a training in Frederick Maryland in 2012 – were the deputies there? Were their superiors there? Did that training go beyond a short seminar or did everyone just ignore it after sitting through? These are questions I'd like answered.

      I keep coming back to that moment – Saylor says, "Fuck you, I'm not going anywhere" (according to multiple statements). The deputies have a choice at that moment. I believe they chose wrongly.

  4. Joshua and Sarah says:

    David, your last sentence in point number two raises another issue, or perhaps it's the overall issue: "People with disabilities need to find ways to fit into typical society, even when it's hard, even when it's disruptive." Yes, but this is a two-way statement.

    I teach at an alternative high school full of kids with lots of issues; many on the autism spectrum, many simply on the "this doesn't work in public high school for too many reasons" spectrum. My school works incredibly hard, and very successfully, to create a safe place for these kids to learn, and make space for their many varieties of craziness. But at the same time, we are teaching these kids to come closer to the norm so they can function in 'typical society' when they leave.

    I haven't done all your background research, but just as clearly as the police deputies involved needed some more training and perhaps a bit of patience and (perhaps) Ethan's aide needed some more training and confidence, Ethan needed to not punch windows, swear at and challenge police deputies, and threaten people in public. This doesn't make it his fault that the police killed him, but it isn't irrelevant either.

    Here's the balance point I see: 'typical society' needs to make space for people with disabilities, make allowances, and educate themselves to deal with these people with compassion and understanding, but people with disabilities also need to do their best (and nothing more) to manage how disruptive they are being. It doesn't matter how large or small the disability is: a punk teenager will get the same treatment from a deputy, and their only 'disability' is being immature. In some ways a person with a more obvious disability is better off – not that it isn't clear that Ethan had something going on, but everyone holds doors for people in wheelchairs. Someone in a wheelchair isn't disruptive – they are adapting to fit in; a punk teenager with ADD and some reading and emotional issues can be very disruptive indeed.

    1. David Perry says:

      Josh (I'm assuming) – So a lot of this falls into the great nebulous highly-litigated zone of "reasonable." What's reasonable? Is it reasonable for Ethan to demand free movie tickets because of his disability? No. Is it reasonable for Ethan to punch someone in the face because of his disability? No. Is it reasonable for Ethan to punch a window? No, but it's not at the same tier as other ones, unless he actually damaged property. This is the kind of thing that you'd want to work on, to help him find ways to express frustration without being physical.

      Now – Is it reasonable for the police to handle the situation without resorting to touch, given that no person was actually in danger? Yes, according to the legal and training experts. It's not that Ethan has to escape consequences, but that the consequences can happen without risk to his health (or the officers' health, given the unpredictability of the situation). Heck, it would have been reasonable for the movie theater to let Ethan watch the movie and send a bill to whoever pays for him (the aide's agency, the parents, etc. I'm not sure).

      As for the visibility issue – that's complicated. When read dozens of police cases, it goes both ways. People with invisible disabilities often get in trouble when they react unpredictably (deaf people not hearing police commands, for example). But people with visible disabilities mean that untrained (or unwilling) police go in assuming danger and assuming non-competency, which seems to indicate being quicker to the taser – because if you can't reason with someone, it's best just to put them down (thinks the police). In Ethan's case – he swears, and the officers decide that they can't talk him out of the situation so they'll just restrain him. But the aide knew better, telling them that he has these stubborn moments, then calms down, so just wait … they didn't wait.

      I don't know enough about the aide. She was young and inexperienced, but her details have been well kept out of the story. No doubt there were actions she could have taken. Debbault, the trainer, says that families need to have a safety plan written out to simply hand to people in moments like this. It's good advice.

  5. Joshua and Sarah says:

    David (and yes, this is Josh) – Once again, you hit the nail on the head: what is reasonable, indeed? I'm not going to criticize the aide, she was in a terrible position and it sounds as if she was doing her best, so let's set her aside and hope she is okay.

    What is reasonable. Wow. I think it's reasonable for police to not fall back on smacking someone down just because they don't listen the first time (or because they are black, or deaf, or gay, or Downs, or anything else). I think it's reasonable for someone running a movie theater to be concerned about all of his customers and whether or not they make it home safely, not just how many tickets they sell. And by the way, what unbelievable good will the owner would have earned if he had done what you said. I think it's reasonable for police to listen to an aide, who has specialized training and knows her patient (not sure that's the right word) much better than the police do. I certainly think it's reasonable to have plans written out ahead of time – if nothing, it's going to make the police stop and think before they thump heads.

    But hey, I'm just a whacko liberal teacher of kids with special needs. What do I know about reasonable?

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