Calls For More Police Training On Disabilities Like Autism, Down Syndrome Patti Saylor's son, Ethan, died after an encounter with law enforcement when he was 26. She believes the incident could have been prevented with better training.

How One Mother's Battle Is Changing Police Training On Disabilities

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It can take years of training to learn how to work with people who have disabilities like autism or Down syndrome. Yet, the police encounter people with these conditions at crucial moments. And they often have little or no training at all. NPR's Meg Anderson reports on one state's efforts to change that.

MEG ANDERSON, BYLINE: Patti Saylor is showing me pictures of her son Ethan in a cap and gown at high school graduation, laughing with his younger brother and sister.

PATTI SAYLOR: He was a character like so many people with Down syndrome are, just big personality.

ANDERSON: Ethan loved guitars and animals and action movies.

SAYLOR: From an early age, he loved everything good guy, hero. And then another extreme passion of his was law enforcement. And that's something that is really shocking when I tell people that.

ANDERSON: Shocking because in 2013, Ethan was killed in an encounter with police. He went to see the movie "Zero Dark Thirty" with an aide hired to help him be more independent. After the movie, Ethan tried to see it again. But he didn't buy another ticket. And he was confronted by three off-duty Frederick County, Md., sheriff's deputies. They were working security, and Ethan refused to leave.

SAYLOR: And so at that point, they just upped the ante. Well, you know, if you don't leave, we're going to have to arrest you.

ANDERSON: Ethan had the physical characteristics of someone with Down syndrome and had significant cognitive impairments and struggled with anxiety. The deputies said Ethan was asked to leave before they took him by the arms. According to a civil lawsuit filed by Ethan's parents, the deputies, quote, "tried to drag him from the theater." And Ethan, quote, "ended up on the floor with at least one deputy on top of him."

SAYLOR: And he stopped breathing. So the officers perform CPR. And, you know, Ethan died there on the floor of the movie theater.

ANDERSON: He was 26-years-old. The deputies denied any wrongdoing. And a Frederick County grand jury cleared them of criminal charges. But Ethan's death got national attention. And it highlighted a big question, just how much training do police officers get on these types of disabilities?

SETH STOUGHTON: The answer is short and depressing. They're generally not trained.

ANDERSON: Seth Stoughton is a former police officer and a law professor at the University of South Carolina. He studies how police are trained nationwide. Officers, he says, generally spend a lot of time learning how to gain control.

STOUGHTON: I am the boss. You do what I tell you to do. And if someone doesn't do what I tell them to do, it is indicative of a potential threat.

ANDERSON: But what some officers see as non-compliance might just be inability. In Maryland, largely because of Patti Saylor's advocacy, police officers are now taught how to adjust their behavior. It's a leader among states in requiring this type of training.

PERCY ALSTON: All right. Good morning, everybody.


ANDERSON: In a classroom at the Prince George's Community College, about a dozen officers are listening to Percy Alston. He runs the police academy here.

ALSTON: So how many of you in uniform would let somebody walk up to you and touch you?

ANDERSON: A few officers cringe. They're not used to being touched. But Alston says someone with an intellectual disability might want to do that. He also says the person could feel overwhelmed by police. They might struggle to follow directions or manage emotions.

ALSTON: Here's a scenario. We've got a mother and a daughter.

ANDERSON: Now, it's role-playing time. Trainer Elaina Camacho, who has autism, is playing the daughter. She threatens her mom with a nail file, and her mom calls the police.



POWELL: Hey, how you doing?

ANDERSON: The officer, Joseph Powell, gets her to open the door, but not until he knows it's safe.

POWELL: Before you let me in, though, is there any weapons you have in there that might harm me or anyone else?

ANDERSON: Powell asks Camacho to put down the nail file. She does. And then he does something unusual. He asks to play her video game while they talk.

POWELL: Am I pressing the right buttons?


POWELL: OK, yeah, I just won. Thought I was good.

ANDERSON: Percy Alston tells the class that moment was key. With a person who has an intellectual disability, one thing officers can do is slow down.

ALSTON: So coming up with different strategies on how to get the goal that you're trying to obtain - I don't care how you get there, you got there. I loved it.

CYNTHIA BROWN: Twenty-seven years, never received a class like until today.

ANDERSON: Cynthia Brown, is one of the officers being trained. She used to be an officer in Washington, D.C. Now she's an investigator at a Maryland high school.

BROWN: I think it should be taught everywhere to all law enforcement.

ANDERSON: Patti Saylor was at the training, too, watching from the front row. She says for her son Ethan, that could have made the difference.

SAYLOR: So many police officers have asked me, well, what should they have done? And I said, well, you've got to use your bag of tricks. If you really wanted him to leave, you may have said well, let's go on out here and get a snack while we wait for your mom.

ANDERSON: There's no magic pixie dust, she says. It all comes down to relationships. Meg Anderson, NPR News.

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