Dear Governor O’Malley,
This morning the family and supporters of Ethan Saylor will deliver over 338,000 signatures to you. They are asking you to do two things. First, call an independent investigation of the death of Ethan Saylor. Second, standardize training for police in how to handle situations like this in the future. Let’s take each in turn on the merits.
One – Investigation
I assume your staff has read the 98-page report on Saylor’s death produced by the Frederick County Sheriff and pronounced it sufficient. I disagree. We need an assessment of the officer’s training to handle situations involving people with disabilities, as they (and the witnesses) clearly understood Ethan had Down syndrome. We need an assessment of their decision-making process. We need to know their risk-assessment. Was anyone at risk, or, when Ethan swore at the officer, did he get mad and lose patience? We ask our officers to do a lot of hard things, including exercising restraint in the face of verbal insults. These officers decided to initiate contact. Why? Did they understand what they were doing?
And then we need the exact chain of events from the moment of physical contact until Ethan’s death. What kind of physical restraint did the officers use, especially in moments when they seem to be out of the sight of most witnesses. Would an emergency tracheotomy have been appropriate? Were there better medical interventions than asking for a defibrillator (none was available) and CPR? How much time elapsed between Ethan stopping struggling and the officers noticing he was not breathing?
We’re looking for justice here. Justice doesn’t have to mean a criminal case against the deputies (unless the facts warrant it), but justice does include an outside, impartial, investigation. Justice means knowing, to the best of our ability, what actually happened. For example, Dennis Debbault, a leading trainer for police in responding to people with autism and other intellectual disabilities, provided training in the area in 2012. Did the deputies attend? Did anyone from the Sheriff’s office attend? What happened to that training and why did it not affect departmental culture? Or did the deputies have the training and just disregard it? We don’t know. I don’t have the wherewithal to find out. Your office does.
Two – Training
Speaking of training, this is the kind of feel-good and practical responses that politicians usually love. Training teaches police to invest patience into situations like the one between Ethan and the deputies. We ask police to do many hard and risky things, but sometimes, just holding back and waiting out the situation would make a difference. In fact, if you look at incidents in which the police respond violently to people with disabilities from around the nation, you’ll realize that almost all of them would have ended differently with just a little more patience. A deaf person in Alabama doesn’t respond fast enough to verbal commands and is tased. A person with Down syndrome in San Diego just walking down the street doesn’t stop when ordered to do so and is pepper sprayed and hit with a truncheon. Patience would make all the difference – and this is something that police can be trained to bring into the equation.
Police training for responding to people with disabilities should not be haphazard, district dependent, or voluntary. Instead, you could make Maryland the example for the rest of the nation to follow: make the training standard, required, state-wide. “Ethan’s Law” is one model, but you could do a lot right now just by using the power of your office.
According to everyone I read, you want to run for president. Washington Monthly praises you as the best manager in government today. The National Journal says maybe it’s time to take you seriously as a candidate. On that petition, hundreds of thousands of people have signed on, and your response will be, for many, their first interaction with you as a leader. Some are in Maryland, but this issue has gone national. If you want to be my president, if you want my vote in a Democratic primary, you will say yes.
Whatever your decision, we’ll be watching and waiting. And writing.