Both Salt Lake City police officers at the center of a controversial arrest of a University Hospital nurse plan to appeal the disciplinary actions handed down Tuesday by their boss, Police Chief Mike Brown.
Brown on Tuesday fired Detective Jeff Payne, who arrested nurse Alex Wubbels on July 26. The chief also demoted Lt. James Tracy, the supervisor who ordered the arrest, to the rank of police officer, effective Wednesday.
Payne’s attorney, Greg Skordas, said Tuesday that his client would appeal the firing, likely this week, because Brown “reacted to a lot of public pressure” in calling for the detective’s termination.
Tracy’s attorney, Edward Brass, said Wednesday that his client, too, will appeal his demotion to the Salt Lake City Civil Service Commission. He was not immediately available for further comment.
The men, who have been with the department for decades, have five business days from Tuesday to file their appeals in writing.
The Civil Service Commission is a three-member body that hears appeals from Police and Fire Department employees who argue that their discipline was unfair. At a hearing, the city is charged with proving that the discipline was fair and supported by facts. It could delve into an officer’s past discipline in an effort to show that the department’s actions were fair.
For Payne, that includes past discipline for sexually harassing another department employee “over an extended period of time” and a 1995 violation of department policies related to vehicle pursuit.
Tracy’s discipline history includes a formal 1997 reprimand for when he transported two handcuffed people across the city, then released them and never documented the event.
The two men can present their own evidence challenging the “consistency of the discipline imposed,” according to the commission’s rules. That means they could present evidence of other controversial firings or demotions within the department in an effort to show that they were punished more harshly than others.
The commission then will weigh in on two questions:
- Do the facts support the charges made by the department?
- If the facts support the charges, are the sanctions so clearly disproportionate to the charges as to amount to an abuse of discretion?
The commission hearings are generally public, according to its rules, though portions could be closed if permitted by Utah’s Open and Public Meetings Act.
The chief’s Tuesday decision is the culmination of an internal affairs investigation that began a day after the confrontation between Wubbels and Payne. The probe ultimately found that both officers had violated a number of department policies.
“In examining your conduct,” Brown wrote to Payne, “I am deeply troubled by your lack of sound professional judgment and your discourteous, disrespectful, and unwarranted behavior, which unnecessarily escalated a
situation that could and should have been resolved in a manner far different from the course of action you chose to pursue.”
Brown said Payne had withheld “all of the relevant information from Lt. Tracy” about the blood draw, including not having probable cause for a warrant from Logan police, who had requested that Salt Lake City obtain the blood.
The chief also noted that, even if Payne had been right to arrest Wubbels, he went about the arrest itself all wrong, likely motivated by his anger and frustration. Instead of “abruptly lunging” at Wubbels, Brown wrote, “you could have simply asked her to place her hands behind her back or, alternatively, asked her to step into another room or outside the Ambulance Bay so as not to take her into custody in the Emergency Room itself.”
Brown was similarly critical of Tracy.
“You exhibited poor leadership and exercised a significant lack of discretion and judgment (especially for a Watch Commander) which has caused significant negative repercussions for the Department,” Brown wrote to Tracy, adding that it had been “completely unreasonable” that Tracy had ordered Payne to arrest Wubbels before arriving at the hospital.
Tracy could have sought legal advice from the Police Department’s attorney, or worked to resolve the information with hospital administration, Brown wrote. Instead, his order to arrest Wubbels “created chaos and unnecessarily escalated the situation.”
Brown said Tracy’s actions had done “substantial damage” to the department’s relationship with nurses, the hospital and the public at large. “Because of your actions,” the chief wrote, “these groups have lost trust and confidence in the Department’s ability to serve them with dignity and respect. It will take considerable time and resources to rebuilt that trust.”
Tracy was demoted to a “police officer III” position, which is the rank for cops with more than eight years of experience, according to police officials. It‘s two steps down from his previous job as lieutenant.
The demotion likely will mean a pay cut for Tracy. According to Utah’s Right to Know, Tracy had been making more than $40 an hour as a supervisor. Most of the “officer III” employees were paid closer to $30 an hour.
The July 26 encounter began when Wubbels refused to allow Payne to draw blood from an unconscious patient involved in a fiery crash in Cache County earlier in the day. She pointed out that the crash victim was not under arrest, that Payne did not have a warrant to obtain the blood and that he could not obtain consent, because the man was unconscious.
In response, a visibly agitated Payne arrested Wubbels. He was acting on orders from Tracy, who later responded to the scene. Payne grabbed and shoved Wubbels before placing her in a patrol car for about 20 minutes. The encounter was captured on police body cameras, and the footage sparked national outrage after it was released by Wubbels’ attorney about a month later.
A criminal investigation into the episode continues, involving the Unified Police Department and the Salt Lake County district attorney’s office. District Attorney Sim Gill said Wednesday that he will start receiving information about UPD’s investigation as soon as next week, though he said more police work is expected. He did not know how long it might be before the case is screened before prosecutors.
The FBI also continues to review the case for possible civil rights violations, however, FBI spokeswoman Sandra Barker said no formal federal investigation had been launched. “It is important to recognize that every referral or complaint does not result in the opening of an investigation,” Barker wrote in an email. “We must have an adequate basis for opening a color-of-law investigation.”
Barker said the FBI began looking into the case once the videos of the arrest were released publicly Aug. 31. Gill’s office formally requested the FBI for assistance on the case a week later.
Meanwhile on Wednesday, University Hospital released its new policy regarding law enforcement interactions with medical staffers.
Hospital officials announced in early September that they would change their policies so nurses and other front-line caregivers would no longer interact with law enforcement. Now police will work with an on-duty clinical nursing supervisor for in-patient units, and a university police officer will coordinate between outside agencies and the hospital.
Police officers will still be allowed to enter the emergency department without official notification if they are guarding a patient who has been placed under or arrest or if they are gathering evidence or statements from a patient who needed emergency medical treatment, such as victims of shootings or stabbings.
But if an officer is called by hospital personnel, such as if a patient seeks treatment after a sexual assault or domestic violence, he or she must explain his or her presence to personnel before entering the emergency department, the policy states.
Margaret Pearce, chief nursing officer, said in a Wednesday news release that the policy was drafted in collaboration with the Salt Lake City Police Department. She said she hopes other hospital and law enforcement agencies across the state will adopt similar protocols.
“When this event took place, I promised Alex [Wubbels] I’d do everything in my power to prevent something like this from happening again,” she said. “... We work closely with law enforcement every day, and we believe this policy helps us to move forward in a very positive way.”
Wubbels and her attorney, Karra Porter, continue to criticize U. police and security for not stepping in to defuse the situation and stop the arrest. “I’m not aware of any meaningful change to university security or [university] police policy, nor am I aware of what disciplinary measures have been taken, if any,” Porter had said Tuesday after the discipline was handed down.
U. police Chief Dale Brophy confirmed Wednesday that no officers or security personnel faced formal discipline as a result of the arrest, and that there were no internal investigations. But he said the U. officer and security guards who were at the scene took part in a “debrief” to discuss what went wrong. “Every time we do a debriefing, there are always coaching moments we talk about,” he said.
Brophy said officers and security personnel also undergo routine training, which includes de-escalation tactics. He said future training sessions would include a similarly tricky “conflict resolution” scenario that is like the Wubbels arrest. Brophy also pointed to the new hospital policy as “helping eliminate many of these situations that may pop up in the future.”
Payne and Tracy were found to have violated several SLCPD policies. Both were found to have acted with conduct unbecoming of a police officer, of being uncourteous in public contacts, of carrying out an arrest instead of issuing a citation for a misdemeanor, and of violating the law enforcement code of ethics and standards of conduct. In addition, Payne was found to have violated a policy requiring officers to fill out a special report after using physical force.