In Bloodletting, I introduced you to Nurse Alex Wubbels of Salt Lake City. Wubbels is a former two-time Olympian in skiing, and by all accounts a fine nurse, concerned, as all nurses must be,with the welfare and rights of her patients. I also introduced you to one Detective Jeff Payne of the local police force, a police officer and part-time paramedic. In this article, I’ll also introduce you to one Lt. James Tracy. We now have a much better picture of why you might want to know these people, so please, gentle readers, let me bring you up to date. Local station KSL.com takes us back to July 26, 2017:
Tracy was the watch commander or supervisor on duty July 26 when Salt Lake police received a request from the Logan Police Department to draw blood from a patient who was flown by medical helicopter from Cache County to University Hospital’s burn unit following a crash that involved a fatality.
Payne was sent to the hospital to collect the blood. But Wubbels — citing policy agreed upon by the hospital and the police department, as well as instructions from nearly a dozen superiors including the hospital’s chief operating officer — declined to tell Payne where the patient was or allow him to draw blood.
After about 90 minutes of negotiating, according to a police report, an impatient Payne is seen in the video telling Wubbels, the charge nurse, that she is under arrest for interfering with a police investigation. Video of Wubbels screaming as Payne lunges for her, grabs her, pushes her outside the hospital doors and against a wall as he handcuffs her and places her in a patrol car, sparked immediate outrage across the country.
Not quite immediate outrage. It now appears the Salt Lake City Police were, in fact, aware of what Payne did, but sat on the case until the week of September 3, when Wubbels’ attorney released the video of Payne’s abusive arrest of Wubbels on social media. Things then began moving quickly indeed.
In another KSL.com report, we learn more about what happened:
Wubbels is a charge nurse, or a liaison between patients and doctors and hospital managers, at the burn unit. Payne had come to the unit to draw blood from the victim in a fiery head-on crash with a vehicle that was fleeing from police in Cache County and crossed into oncoming traffic. The driver of the fleeing vehicle was killed.
Because the victim in the crash, Bill Gray, was unconscious and could not consent to the procedure and was not under arrest, and because police did not have a warrant, Wubbels denied the blood draw. Payne said in the video he was arresting her for impeding a police investigation.
A substantial part of Payne’s current woes are directly related to his unprofessional and excessively violent treatment of Wubbels, who, by all accounts, was completely in the right, following the lawful and prudent instructions of her superiors, to the highest levels of their organization.
Wubbels said she was sorry for making me wait so long and I said, ‘No your (sic) not,’ and walked away,’ the report states.
Payne described in his report arresting Wubbels: ‘She pulled away and as I tried harder to control her, she continued to try to get away. … I was able to get a grasp on her right wrist with my right hand and twisted her so she was facing the ER doors. I then used my left hand to hold onto her shoulder and I pushed her out of the ER through the doors so we were outside and not causing problems in the ER. I was then able to hold her against a wall and place handcuffs on her.
During the incident, considering his paramedic status, Payne also made a profoundly stupid threat (via Fox News):
During the recorded incident, Payne said he could retaliate against the hospital when he said, ‘I’ll bring them all the transients and take good patients elsewhere.
Another KSL.com report demonstrates Lt. Tracy didn’t exactly cover himself in glory:
Payne says in the video that he was following orders from Tracy. After the nurse was handcuffed, Tracy arrived at the hospital. Several hospital staffers attempted to talk to him either directly or hand him a cellphone with one of the hospital’s top brass on the line.
‘I don’t need you to make a phone call to tell me what authority I have because I know what authority I have,’ the lieutenant is heard saying during one call.
Obviously, someone needed to tell Tracy, and Payne, just that, though later, Tracy seemed to wise up, at least a little:
Later in the video, Tracy tells Payne that Wubbels’ arrest won’t stick and that they will let her go, but allow her to believe the case may be reviewed with prosecutors for criminal charges.
‘We have found a workaround so that we don’t have to try to get through the huge amounts of roadblocks your organization has put in front of us, to get what is lawfully ours to have,’ he tells the hospital COO on the phone.
Actually, Tracy’s only “workaround” would have been to obtain a warrant for the blood, but I’ll get to that shortly.
Since my first article on the case, Payne and Tracy have been administratively suspended, and both have lawyered up. They certainly have a right to do that, and were I in their position, I’d do the same. I’m sure they’re not going to be giving any statements to SLCPD investigators or administrators. In addition, Payne, who had been working for Gold Cross Ambulance since 1983, has been fired from his part-time paramedic position. He was, according to media accounts, a good paramedic, but no ambulance service can abide employees threatening to treat any patient less than professionally.
The local prosecutor has not only opened a criminal investigation, the prosecutor, Sim Gill, has asked the FBI to investigate the case. The SLCPD is also investigating internally, and possibly criminally. About a year ago Utah law was amended to make assault on medical personnel a felony, just as it had previously been for assault on law enforcement personnel.
In addition, the hospital has enacted a new policy. Fox News reports:
The University of Utah Hospital is enacting new restrictions on law enforcement officials following the controversial arrest of a Utah nurse who refused to draw blood from an unconscious patient.
Instead of interacting with nurses as a first point of contact, police will now make requests to ‘house supervisors,’ who are highly trained in medical laws and hospital rules, medical officials said Monday.
Additionally, police will no longer have access to patient-care areas.
Margaret Pearce, chief nursing officer for the University of Utah hospital system, said the job of nurses ‘is to take excellent care of the patients.’ She added, ‘We never want them to leave patient care to deal with a police officer issue … so we are taking them totally out of the loop.
That’s going to leave a mark.
I need to make sure this never, ever, ever happens to another one of our care providers again,’ Pearce said, calling the officer’s treatment of Wubbles ‘appalling’ and ‘totally unacceptable.’
Pearce said the new policies had already been put into place, before the incident went public, to prevent similar situations. So far, 2,500 nurses have been trained in the new rules.
Gordon Crabtree, interim chief executive of the hospital, said he was ‘deeply troubled” by Wubbles’ arrest.
Praising Wubbles’ strength and devotion to patients’ privacy and safety, Crabtree said, ‘her actions are nothing less than exemplary. She handled the situation with utmost courage and integrity.’
‘This type of situation won’t happen again,’ Crabtree said. ‘We simply will not let Alex down.
The mayor has abjectly apologized; the Police Chief has done the same. Even the Governor of Utah has thrown Payne and Tracy under the bus. Wubbels is reportedly still considering a civil suit.
Police Chief Mike Brown said Payne was pulled from the blood draw program, and the SLCPD’s internal investigation was supposedly started within 24 hours of the July 26 incident, though he claims to have seen the video only last week. It’s a police body cam video, so one wonders why it took so long for the SLCPD to be aware of it? He has also, according to media accounts, said he worked with the hospital to resolve the situation. The hospital said it too implemented its new no-cops-around policy immediately after the incident. If these statements are so, why was the SLCPD taking more than a month to deal with the supposed internal investigation? Major public service agencies do not work together to dramatically change their policies and relations if there is no need to do so. Payne–and Tracy’s–actions could not be more wrong, and the major policy changes are proof of it. What more was there to investigate?
The immediate, and groveling nature of Brown’s behavior after the video went viral, and the public went ballistic, suggests the SLCPD was trying to sweep Payne and Tracy’s appalling lack of judgment and arrogant, badge-heavy misbehavior under the rug. Even if that were the case, even if the SLCPD was merely uncommonly slow in doing the right thing, events have overtaken them, and they have badly damaged the reputation of the SLCPD, which will ever after appear to have been attempting a cover-up.
Let us assume, for the sake of argument, Payne’s attempt to draw blood was a good faith mistake. He truly believed he had the lawful authority to take the blood of Bill Gray, the crash victim, who was unconsciousness and could not consent. Acting in good faith, he believed he had probable cause to arrest Alex Wubbels, and used the minimum reasonable force necessary to make the arrest. Only later, at the order of his Lieutenant, did he realize he made a mistake, and released Wubbels without actually arresting her.
Were all of this true, the remedy for the mistake would begin with Payne, who should have sincerely apologized to Wubbels and everyone and anyone that saw what he did. He should have explained, in detail, why he believed he had the authority to act, and why he came to understand he was wrong. Apparently, he did none of this, and he and Tracy continued to behave as though they were in the right. If Wubbels had been taken to jail and booked, she should have been released as soon as possible, and all charges dropped.
As I explained in the first article of what appears sure to become a series, Wubbels was actually arrested, because an arrest occurs when a reasonable person’s liberty is restricted for even a short time, and they would not believe they were free to go. Having been told she was under arrest, violently restrained, handcuffed and stuffed in a police car for more than 20 minutes, Wubbels would only have been unreasonable if she thought she were free to go. There are a very few exceptions to this general principle, but none apply in this case.
All available evidence suggests Payne was not acting in good faith, and should have known it. He is an active paramedic. His police employer assigned him to a blood draw program. More than a year ago, the Supreme Court’s decision (Birchfield v. North Dakota, 06-23-16) that absent consent, blood may only be drawn under a warrant, invalidated implied consent laws that allowed blood draws without consent. How is it possible a paramedic, and a police officer intimately involved with blood draw situations, could have failed to learn about current law relating to that subject? Were Payne’s ambulance and police employers both incompetent in informing and training their personnel regarding a procedure they encounter daily?
Kept waiting 90 minutes by a troublesome little nurse who kept climbing the authority ladder, blocking Payne at every turn, obviously enraged Payne, who equally obviously felt his authority was being questioned and thwarted. Every badge-heavy tendency he ever had bubbled angrily to the surface, and in full contempt-of-cop mode, he lashed out at Wubbels, the law be damned.
He compounded this mistake with his incredibly stupid threat about patient transports, which had to be the final determining factor in his dismissal from Gold Cross Ambulance. I suspect, however, his damage to the relationship between the police and medical personnel was so significant he would have been fired anyway. His stubborn refusal to release Wubbels until essentially ordered to do so by Tracy, is not helping his case either.
Tracy is also in serious trouble. It is the job of police administrators to know the law and to ensure their subordinates are properly trained. How could Tracy have been ignorant of the Supreme Court’s decision? His behavior and angry, badge-heavy comment about his authority, suggests he was ignorant, or also suffering from contempt of cop syndrome.
Why Payne wanted Gray’s blood remains a mystery. He was an innocent victim, injured because a criminal fleeing from the police rammed his truck head-on, killing himself. There could be no professional, lawful reason why the police would want his blood. It has been suggested the Logan, Utah Police requested it be done, perhaps merely to be thorough, but if so, that did not relieve Payne of his duty to obey the law. Payne reportedly claimed he wanted Gray’s blood to “protect” him. Gray is a reserve police officer, but blood panels are routine in hospital treatment, something Payne surely must have known. How Payne could be protecting Gray by violating his rights also remains a mystery. If the Logan Police had probable cause to believe Gray’s blood contained evidence of some crime, they apparently did not communicate that information to Payne, who apparently made no mention of it in his report or otherwise. It may be no more complex than that Payne backed himself into an ego corner and could think of no way out other than attacking Wubbels.
Is there a criminal case against Payne? Wubbels suffered humiliation, fear, and perhaps some temporary pain, but no lasting damage. In fact, her reputation has obtained a polish that will shine brightly for a very long time. Unquestionably, what Payne did was foolish and wrong, but does that rise to the level of a felony?
Police officers must be able to make mistakes, even in arrests, without losing their jobs and careers. If they cannot, who will apply to become a police officer? More to the point, who will apply–that a rational public would want carrying a badge and gun–to be a police officer? In Police IQ and Police IQ 2, I wrote of current, dangerous trends in police hiring. The Payne case threatens to worsen an already worrying trend. As I noted in the original article, Payne’s punishment must take into account his total record, and the seriousness of the damage he caused to the relationship between the SLCPD and the medical community. I am not, at the moment, convinced his treatment of Wubbels, even though potentially a bit excessively rough, rises to the level of firing. His damage to the relationship, however, may.
There is one additional factor: the involvement of the FBI. Their only legitimate place would be investigating a civil rights violation. The law is quite clear on this, and I seriously doubt Payne’s actions rise to that level. In fact, the federal government generally stays out of matters that can be easily and correctly handled by the local courts and interdepartmental discipline. However, these days, Lord only knows what’s going on in the FBI, which appears almost entirely politicized. That said, Wubbels is a blonde, white person, not at all the sort of symbol a social justice leaning agency would normally be interested in propping up for virtue signaling. Additionally, no rational local politician wants the FBI investigating their police force. The federal government could easily end up running their police force and draining city coffers. This may be less likely under the Trump Administration, but is always a possibility.
There is, however, a more dangerous possibility: The Ferguson Effect. If police officers across the country discover they can expect federal prosecution whenever they make a mistake and it goes viral, the damage to our police agencies will be severe and long lasting. Intelligent, rational, even-tempered and dependable people will flee from the police profession, and such people will surely not want to join. What’s left, what will end up on the streets, will ensure a continuing deterioration in police/community relations and the rule of law. You think you’ve seen badge heavy? You haven’t seen anything yet.
The local prosecutor was a fool for invoking the FBI, a blatantly political stunt. The FBI would be wise to decline involvement in the case. Payne is probably toast, and likely, Tracy, a nearly 30-year veteran, too. The local authorities will have their pound of flesh, even if it is not entirely warranted, and that should be enough. that would be bad enough for the long term health of the nation’s police, but there could be worse.
Perhaps there is more information we don’t yet know; that’s likely. More as more becomes available, and thanks, as always, to readers for their tips on new information.
The Alex Wubbels Case Archive may be found here.