When an incident of police misconduct is caught on video, and that video goes viral on the internet, there is hope that the officers will be held accountable for their actions in court—but there is never a guarantee that things will change. The only certainty seems to be that attention will eventually shift to the next officer who is caught on video abusing the same citizens they claim to “serve and protect.”
The University of Utah Hospital was thrust into the spotlight last week after Body Cam footage was released that showed Detective Jeff Payne arrest Nurse Alex Wubbels on July 26. One of the most astonishing aspects of the encounter was that Wubbels did nothing wrong. She was defending the rights of an unconscious patient when police demanded a blood sample from him, and the fact that she told Payne “No” became probable cause for her arrest.
While Salt Lake City Police claimed they changed their procedures for how police officers interact with medical professionals, it should be noted that a criminal investigation into Payne’s actions was not issued until the video of the encounter went viral—over one month after it happened.
Instead of waiting for the local police to take action, the University of Utah Hospital has responded by changing its policies and banning police officers from patient-care areas and from direct contact with nurses.
During a press conference on Monday, Gordon Crabtree, interim chief executive of the hospital, described Wubbels, who is also a former Olympian, as an “Olympic-sized hero” who went above and beyond to protect a patient’s legal rights.
“Alex Wubbels stood firm and upheld hospital policy, patient privacy—she put her own safety at risk to ensure the safety and privacy of the patient. Her actions are nothing less than exemplary,” Crabtree said. “She handled this situation with the utmost courage and integrity. Our hospital continues to offer our full support to Nurse Wubbels, and we extend our appreciation to her for her dedication and her service.”
Crabtree said he was “deeply troubled” by the details of the incident when he received reports of it the morning after it happened. “There is absolutely no tolerance for that kind of behavior in our hospital,” he said.
“To our nurses and staff, this will not happen again,” Crabtree vowed. “And to that end, we are changing and have changed our interface protocols with our law enforcement. A move that I first set in motion within hours of the event with my team has made changes that we have actually implemented over the last several weeks. Our care nurses and staff will not be the first point of contact with law enforcement.”
Margaret Pearce, chief nursing officer for the University of Utah Hospital system, said she was “appalled” by the actions of the officers, and she found their treatment of Nurse Wubbels to be “totally unacceptable.”
Pearce noted that the new policies do not allow police to enter patient-care areas such as the burn unit where Payne encountered Wubbels. When officers do visit the hospital in search of a patient’s blood sample, they will have to deal with “house supervisors.” She said the hope is that not only will similar events not happen again, but that nurses will be able to devote their full attention to the patients they are caring for, without worrying about interference from police.
While the tyrannical way Payne treated Wubbels, and the fact that she is a hero for standing up for her patient’s legal rights, have been addressed, there is one major fact that has not—the reason why the officers were so adamant about obtaining a blood sample from the patient in question.
William Gray, a reserve police officer from Rigby, Idaho, was the comatose patient whose blood was demanded by the Salt Lake City officers. Gray was working as a truck driver when a car crossed into oncoming traffic and collided head-on with his truck. The driver of the car was the suspect of a police chase.
A statement released by the Rigby Police Department noted that Gray was the victim in the crash and “at no time was he under any suspicion of wrongdoing.” This serves as a reminder that police may have been in search of substances in Gray’s blood that could impair his driving, and leave him with the liability for the crash that occurred as a result of dangerous police chase.
While there is no guarantee that Jeff Payne will be held accountable for his actions or that the other officers who stood around and watched as he violently arrested Wubbels when she refused to break the law will not go on to exhibit similar conduct, the fact that the University of Utah Hospital is making an effort to ensure that their nurses are not abused in the future serves as a notable example.