Policing Persons with Disabilities in the 21st Century: A Call for Crisis Prevention and Procedural Justice

Robert “Ethan” Saylor was a 26-year-old man who enjoyed going to the movies. He also had Down syndrome, a genetic condition that often causes intellectual and developmental delays. In February 2013, Ethan went to the movies with his support staff, and he enjoyed the film Zero Dark Thirty so much that he wanted to stay in the theater to watch it again. However, when Ethan refused to leave his seat in the theater or purchase another ticket, the movie theater staff called mall security personnel, who were also police officers from the local sheriff’s department.

Ethan’s support staff told the officers that Ethan would become agitated if they touched him and that his mother was on the way to the theater to help. Instead of waiting for Ethan’s mother to arrive, three officers restrained Ethan, who ended up on his stomach, facedown on the floor of the theater. Minutes later, Ethan stopped responding. He was declared dead at the scene by EMTs. The autopsy concluded that Ethan had died from positional asphyxiation—he had been restrained in such a manner that he could not breathe for several minutes—and his death was ruled a homicide, prompting public outcry against the officers involved. The grand jury elected not to indict the officers on criminal charges; a civil case against the officers is ongoing.