The footage of a Salt Lake City nurse Alex Wubbels being manhandled by a police officer went viral over Labor Day weekend because it was appalling at every turn.
Detective Jeff Payne violently arrested Wubbels because she refused to draw blood without a warrant from an unconscious patient who wasn’t under arrest. To do so, as she explained, would have violated hospital policy. It also would have violated the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution, which protects us against unreasonable and unlawful searches and seizures. As the Supreme Court ruled last year, police must have a warrant, made an arrest, or obtained the patient’s consent to draw blood.
There’s no doubt Payne knew all this as a police phlebotomist. Apparently, he didn’t care, announcing the blood draw would happen on his personal authority, regardless of the law. “I either go away with blood in vials or body in tow,” he can be heard saying in the video, and Wubbels stood her ground.
As details about the incident have emerged, two aspects of the aftermath are worth highlighting.
First, Payne assaulted Wubbels a month ago, in late July, but the police department did not so much as apologize to her until after the footage produced national outrage. Only now is a criminal investigation underway.
Since the story broke, Payne has been placed on paid leave (which, let’s be honest, is basically staycation). But for a month after the incident, he was kept on active duty, despite his clear disregard for basic constitutional rights and willingness to use violence against innocent people. Payne was taken off the phlebotomy program, but that’s cold comfort for Utahns who could have encountered him under other circumstances.
This slow and so far inadequate response does not speak well of the police department’s internal accountability or commitment to respecting individual rights. After Payne dragged Wubbels, screaming for help, to his car to arrest her, she was eventually released without charges. Payne then filed a department report on the encounter.
Why was that not enough to trigger the investigation and apology? A viral video should not have been necessary to bring Payne to heel.
Second, the hospital where Wubbels works has now instituted new rules for what police are allowed to do in its facilities. NPR reports:
The Salt Lake City hospital where a police officer roughly arrested a nurse who was protecting her patient’s rights in July will no longer allow law enforcement agents inside its patient care areas. They’ll now have to check in, rather than enter through the emergency room.
“Law enforcement who come to the hospital for any reason involving patients will be required to check in to the front desk of the hospital,” said chief nursing officer Margaret Pearce of the University of Utah Hospital. “There, a hospital house supervisor will meet the officers to work through each request.”
In contrast with the police department’s indefensible foot-dragging, the hospital created this policy the day after Wubbels’ ordeal.
Though Wubbels has said she’s “not here to police the police” — and she’s entirely right that police must learn to police themselves — the sad truth is that measures like this hospital policy are necessary to protect against police brutality.
We can’t always exact an immediate or sufficient change in police behavior, because government is always resistant to reform and limits on its power. But we can set up our own rules in private businesses and organizations that help keep the misconduct Wubbels experienced from happening again.