Robert Ethan Saylor (Photo from Stauffer Funeral Home)
WASHINGTON (WUSA9) -- As part of our continuing coverage of the fight for justice for Robert "Ethan" Saylor, the Frederick man with Down Syndrome who died in police custody in January, WUSA9 has been taking a closer look at police training.
Today, we got exclusive access into how some Montgomery and Prince George's County police officers are learning to handle difficult situations.
They are called the Montgomery County Police Crisis Intervention Team and they take officers through a week of training. The classes help officers deal with people with issues like traumatic brain injuries to out-of-control adolescents to hording disorders, and include tools to respond to a host of mental illness issues and developmental and intellectual disabilities. Towards the end of the training, staff members from the Montgomery County Crisis Center act out different scenarios and officers respond as they would in a crisis. While we were there, we videotaped an encounter with a therapist playing a developmentally disabled woman acting out in a group home. The woman stamped her feet on the ground, and yelled, as two officers tried to de-escalate the situation.
Montgomery County Police Officer Scott Davis has been leading this revolutionary training for the past four years.
He said, "This is an epidemic, in my view, and I think society does not view a mental health emergency as a medical emergency and it is. In my view of what we see every day on the street, somebody who is in psychosis, somebody who is in a psychiatric emergency, it's just as dangerous as somebody who's having a stroke or a heart attack. And we need to change the stigma of mental illness and let people on the street know that hey, this is just as serious."
We found about this training through our research into the death of Ethan Saylor. It was back in January when three off-duty Frederick County Sheriff's deputies responded to a Frederick, Maryland movie theater where the 26-year-old with Down Syndrome had refused to leave. The deputies forcibly removed him. Ethan died.
This week, Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley appointed a Commission to take a sharp look at training for scenarios like this. Davis is on it, "Sometimes the officers can do every single thing right on a call and the call can still depreciate and what we call 'go south' really quickly. I think, based on what I've talked to some of the deputies up there, I think they did everything right. Can they use additional training? I can use additional training. Everyone is the state of Maryland can use additional training."
Officer Laurie Reyes also teaches at the training. She's a one-woman machine when it comes to training officers how to deal with people on the autism spectrum, "We're trying to make it better, myself and many other officers are trying to do education. In my opinion, education and awareness are the best ways to prevent a tragedy." Reyes is the creator of a yellow t-shirt that says "I have autism" printed on it. She recommends that autistic children wander away from home wear it, so they can be better identified if they become missing. Now, she's getting calls from police departments all around the country about it.
The next training is in November.