A Washington Post story reported on a case involving Richard Rochford, a Frederick County Sheriff’s Deputy, who was working security at a movie theater. In 2013, the manager pointed out to Rochford that a man had entered a movie without paying. Rochford encountered Robert E. Saylor, a 26-year-old man with Down syndrome, and attempted to persuade him to leave the theater. Saylor reportedly responded in a hostile manner and refused to leave. Rochford, with assistance from two off-duty police officers, began forcing Saylor to the exit and amid the struggle he died.
There was a large public outcry after the incident. The case is currently in the U.S. Court of Appeals to determine if the officers are entitled to qualified immunity which shields them from liability in this wrongful death action.
The officers filed a motion for dismissal of the claim; however, the lower court denied their request. The claim brought by Patti Saylor, the victim’s mother, alleges an excessive use of force and she feels that the matter should be left for a jury to decide. The Internal Affairs Division conducted an investigation and found no criminal charges were appropriate for the officers. At the time the officers began removing Saylor from the theatre, witnesses claim he was screaming, then abruptly fell silent. The cause of death was determined to be asphyxia, stemming from a fracture in the larynx.
Saylor had traveled to the movie with an aide, Mary Crosby, who explained that Saylor did not like to be touched and cursed at the officers. Another witness said the three deputies pulled Saylor from his seat and they all stumbled to the ground at some point in the struggle. Saylor, who was 5’6” and 300 pounds, was said to have stopped moving after the fall. The officers checked him for a pulse, yet one could not be detected and an ambulance was notified. Rochford rode in the ambulance with Saylor and was described as being “visibly shaken” from the series of unfortunate events.
The attorney for the Saylor family affirmed his belief that they have a strong case, explaining that there was clearly an excessive use of force in the incident. He further said that at the very least, the actions of the officers were grossly negligent and an example of battery.
The lower court judge found that sufficient evidence existed to proceed with the claim against the officers and Hill Management Services, the real estate management company for the property where the theater is located. The defense team, while acknowledging that this situation was a tragedy, claims that a reasonable jury will not find that the level of force used was excessive.
In the wake of Saylor’s death, Maryland made some modifications to the officer training program that specifically involves engaging those with mental or developmental challenges.