Ethan Saylor, the young man with Down syndrome who died during his 2013 arrest by three off-duty Frederick County sheriff’s deputies, has become a national symbol for how law enforcement can mishandle developmentally disabled people.
Sen. Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, named this week’s Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing on improving law enforcement interactions with developmentally disabled and mentally ill individuals “Ethan’s Hearing.”
In doing so, Durbin made the Saylor case the single illustrative warning of what can happen when law enforcement fails its responsibilities to the disabled and mentally ill community.
“In recent years, law enforcement have been forced to shoulder a new challenge due to inadequate mental health and social services. Police officers, many times, have become the first responders for disabled individuals in crisis,” Durbin said at the outset of the hearing. “It's incumbent on Congress and the executive branch to help local and state law enforcement shoulder this expanded role and develop practices that protect officers, disabled individuals and the public.”
We’re glad Ethan’s death has become a rallying cry for better police training and more sensitive treatment of disabled individuals in crisis across the country. But our sheriff’s office is in an uncomfortable and particularly harsh spotlight. Having Frederick County’s name attached to that national discussion is embarrassing.
If Frederick County Sheriff Chuck Jenkins has any discomfort about Capitol Hill hearings that in large part dealt with the actions of officers under his command, he’s keeping it well hidden.
“Anything that comes down in the future, we are going to get out in front of it,” Jenkins said of training that could be mandated by either the state or federal government.
So far, the agency has been a long way from getting in front of issues stemming from Saylor’s death. After Jenkins was approached in summer 2013 by Mount St. Mary’s University about training for officers to improve communication with those who have intellectual and developmental disabilities, it wasn’t until six months later, a full year after Saylor’s death, that deputies began taking the four-hour course as part of their yearly in-service training. If Jenkins has proactively sought out other opportunities to improve police interactions, we haven’t heard about it.
Jenkins didn’t see the hearing, he told our reporter Danielle Gaines, who covered the discussion from Capitol Hill. He should have, simply because it was the actions of his officers being discussed — and because some good ideas were presented that are worth considering here in Frederick County. Jenkins would have heard about crisis intervention training — CIT — that has been adopted by about 2,800 police agencies across the country, including our neighbors, Montgomery County.
CIT includes 40 hours of training and focuses on de-escalating tense situations across the board. According to Gaines’ story, Denise E. O'Donnell, director of the Bureau of Justice Assistance at the Justice Department, called CIT programs the “linchpin” of effective efforts to help improve responses nationwide to mentally ill individuals.
We’d urge Jenkins to investigate adopting this program. While it’s too detailed to outline thoroughly here, the success attested to it at the Senate hearing by Sgt. A.D. Paul, of the Plano Police Department in Texas, is compelling. His agency has experienced a 24 percent reduction in “use of force” reports since the program was started in 2008.
Jenkins has an opportunity here to lead reforms in local policing. This doesn’t have to be an acknowledgment of failure or fault; there’s no downside to wanting an exceptionally well-trained body of deputies. But when those mandates come down — and they will — wouldn’t it better to be among those testifying on Capitol Hill telling Senator Durbin the requirements are unnecessary in Frederick County, because we’ve already implemented them, and more? Wouldn’t that be better than being cited as a hallmark of policing failure?