Hospital administrators are concerned. Nurses are frightened. Civil libertarians are steamed. The internet is alight with indignation.
But it should be clear that the law enforcement profession itself is the group that has been harmed the most by the widespread reporting of — and reaction to — the case of a Salt Lake City police detective mistreating a University of Utah Hospital nurse.
It has been a little more than a week since the world first heard the story of Detective Jeff Payne arresting nurse Alex Wubbels over her refusal to allow an unconstitutional act of drawing the blood of an unconscious accident victim in her care.
In that time, Mayor Jackie Biskupski and Police Chief Mike Brown have apologized to the nurse and to the hospital and assured everyone that the matter is being investigated both by the police department’s own internal affairs branch and by the city’s independent civilian review board.
Then, after widespread criticism and a couple of public nudges from District Attorney Sim Gill, criminal investigation files were opened by both the Salt Lake County Unified Police Department and the FBI.
In theory, the feds and the county police are sufficiently independent of the city’s police department that they can be trusted to go wherever the investigation leads, rather than construct a cover-up to shield a fellow officer.
In reality, there is always the risk that, unless one or all of those investigations lowers the boom on the detective, the police lieutenant who was working with him on the case and the officers who stood by and did nothing during the confrontation, public perception will be that the Thin Blue Line held and no law enforcement officer will ever be called to account for his actions. No matter how offensive.
Thus might there be concern that, in order to avoid the appearance of favoritism, or in order to get back at an officer whose hot-headedness appears to have besmirched the entire profession, other layers of police may be far too eager to come down on the embattled officer.
That’s why everything touching this investigation, at every level and every stage, has to be as transparent as possible. The public that hires and pays the police, and the police officers who put their lives on the line for that public, both have the right to expect that there will not be a rush to judgment. Either way.
Police officers will always have to remember, and their superiors will have to redouble their efforts to teach them, that part of the tremendous burden of being a law enforcement officer is that every one of them carries the reputation of the entire profession on his or her back every day.
It has ever been thus. And now that we live in a world where there is a video camera on every body and in every hand, it is even more true.
So, as a wise police officer used to say to his charges every morning, ”Let’s be careful out there.”