Police Abuse

Police Union Complains That Public Got to See Them Roughing Up Utah Nurse

Transparency about behavior of government employees is not a violation of due process.


Alex Wubbels
Salt Lake City Police

The head of the Salt Lake Police Association has watched the country's outrage over the videos showing a nurse getting arrested for refusing to draw a man's blood without a warrant and has decided the correct response is to complain that the public got to see what its officers did.

Union head Stephen Hartney sent a letter to the city's mayor and police chief to complain video of the brief arrest of nurse Alex Wubbels has made "pariahs" of Det. Jeff Payne and his watch commander at the time of the incident, Lt. James Tracy.

Wubbels became an insta-celebrity on Labor Day weekend after she released police body camera footage showing Payne very forcefully arresting her at University of Utah Hospital because she refused his demand that she draw blood from an unconscious victim of a nasty high-speed car crash. The patient, William Gray, was not a suspect, nor involved in the chase, and Payne didn't have a warrant. Wubbels, surrounded by staff at the hospital, explained that she was not permitted to draw the man's blood. Payne arrested her, in what appeared on video to be sheer frustration at having been defied.

Payne and Tracy have been placed on leave while the case was investigated. A couple of weeks ago the city revealed an internal investigation and a civilian review board determined the two officers violated department policies.

Hartney this week complained the police body camera footage should not have been publicly released until the investigation was completed. From the Salt Lake Tribune:

The letter said the union was, at this point, not arguing or even discussing the merits of the allegations raised against the officers. "Rather we are solely concerned… with the 'investigatory process' which we believe has been corrupted."

The letter claims the city has not followed an "agreed upon and carefully scripted process" for investigating the conduct of police officers. At the news conference, Hartney focused on if the city should have released the footage so soon under the state's Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA), considering the release could have interfered with the internal affairs investigation.

The release of the body cam footage and information from the disciplinary investigation "has created a public furor which makes reasoned determinations difficult, if not impossible," the letter states.

The city, however, didn't release the videos. It agreed to a request by Wubbels to release the footage to her, following the law Hartney referenced. The city said it had no good reason to deny the video footage to Wubbels.

The two officers weren't even put on administrative leave until after Wubbels went public with the video footage.

What might have been forgotten in all of this is Wubbels released the video because she believed she was exposing a widespread problem of police bullying nurses into drawing blood without consent or a warrant.

And while Wubbels was pleased the Salt Lake City Police had been responsive to her claims of abuse, she and other hospital staff were concerned about other law enforcement agencies, including university police. Campus police did absolutely nothing during the arrest, and since then the hospital has implemented new policies to limit police access to parts of the hospital.

Public pressure and response is important to holding police officers accountable. They are public servants, and Hartney's responses, like we've seen from other police union leaders, misuse the concept of due process to try to conceal information from the people to whom the police are supposed to answer.

Yesterday we saw that a North Carolina law exempting body camera footage from public records requests was very clearly being used to try to shield police from exposure of conduct that might expose them to public criticism.

Gray, the car crash victim unable to consent to Payne's demand for a blood draw, died Monday while still in the hospital.