Autopsy Report: Man with Down Syndrome Died of Asphyxia While in Police Custody
The death last month of Robert Saylor, a 26-year-old Maryland man with down syndrome, has been ruled a homicide after the state medical examiner determined that Saylor died of asphyxia while in police custody.
Cpl. Jennifer Bailey, a spokeswoman for the Federick County Sheriff’s office, said Friday that Saylor’s death is still under investigation. Meanwhile, the three officer’s involved remain on regular assignments.
According to police, Saylor refused to leave his seat or pay for another ticket after watching the movie “Zero Dark Thirty” with his caretaker. A theatre employee alerted off-duty sheriff’s deputies working a secondary job policing the shopping center where the theatre is located. Police say that Saylor cursed at the officers and resisted arrest prompting them to physically force out of his seat and into handcuffs. That’s when police say Saylor began having a “medical emergency” at which point they immediately removed the handcuffs and called EMS. Saylor was pronounced dead at the hospital.
Clearly this case isn’t open and shut since we don’t know what caused the asphyxiation. But shouldn’t the officers involved at least be suspended from street duty until we’re certain excessive force wasn’t responsible for his death?
The Frederick News Post posed this question to the Sherrif’s office:
Bailey said the decision to keep the deputies in their current duties stems from the uncertainty surrounding the circumstances of Saylor’s death. She said the case differs significantly from an officer-involved shooting, in which the connection between the actions of deputies and the result is clear.
“In this case, the investigators are still working to determine what caused Mr. Saylor’s death,” Bailey said. She said the decision could eventually be made to put the deputies on administrative leave as more information becomes available.
The deputies exercised their rights under the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights and have not made statements in the case, Bailey said.
Cpl. Gregg Warner, the sheriff’s office’s lead investigator in the case, said he is waiting for the final report from the medical examiner for more details about exactly how Saylor died. He said so far the agency has been given only the cause and manner of death.
That sounds to me like a good reason to put these officer’s on desk duty, not an argument to keep them on the streets.
Shortly after Saylor’s death, his mother, Patti, told ABC7 that her son did not have any pre-existing medical conditions so she’s having a hard time understanding why her son would die so suddenly. The Post provide’s some speculation into one possibility:
Dr. George Kirkham is a criminologist and former law enforcement officer who teaches at the College of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Florida State University. He said the circumstances surrounding Saylor’s death suggest a possible case of positional asphyxia, which he said often goes hand in hand with a phenomenon called sudden in-custody death syndrome.
Positional asphyxia is typically the result of an intense struggle and often involves a person who is handcuffed and lying on their stomach after the struggle. Kirkham said people often panic and can’t catch their breath. People with larger stomachs are particularly vulnerable, he said, because their bellies will push into their sternums, making breathing even more difficult.
“People get into almost like a drowning swimmer panic, and they’re just fighting for their lives,” Kirkham said. “Their cardiovascular system is just going wild.”
The phenomenon is common among people who are on drugs or suffer from mental instability, Kirkham said, and Saylor’s Down syndrome could have played a role in making such a scenario more likely.
“It’s a well-known phenomenon, and these people need to be trained about it,” he said.
The issues of in-custody death and positional asphyxia are covered during use-of-force training, which is taught to deputies annually, Bailey said.