SLC mayor, police chief apologize for officer who arrested nurse; criminal investigation to follow

Police department places two officers on leave as internal investigation continues.

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) Still photo taken from previously undisclosed video of a Salt Lake City police officer assaulting and arresting University of Utah Hospital on-duty nurse Alex Wubbels for following her hospital’s policy on blood draws from an unconscious victim.

Hours after Salt Lake City’s mayor and police chief apologized for an officer handcuffing a hospital nurse who refused to take blood from an unconscious patient, Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill announced Friday he wanted a criminal investigation into the episode.

“On the face of the evidence, there is concern that is raised about this officer’s conduct,” Gill said in a Friday interview. “But the whole point of an investigation is to gather the information about this situation.”

Gill said he discussed the situation with Mayor Jackie Biskupski and Chief Mike Brown on Friday morning, and they agreed it would be appropriate to conduct an investigation in the name of ”transparency and institutional accountability.”

City officials said late Friday the Unified Police Department would conduct the criminal probe. Meanwhile, an internal affairs investigation by Salt Lake City police into the officer, Detective Jeff Payne, also is ongoing. Payne was placed on administrative leave Friday afternoon, as was a second unnamed officer connected to the confrontation. 

Earlier in the day, Brown and Biskupski called the University Hospital nurse, Alex Wubbels, to apologize. They then held a news conference, saying they were alarmed by what they saw on police body camera footage of the arrest, which took place July 26, and said changes to police blood draw policies and officer training had been made.

The mayor said Thursday was the first time she had seen the officer body camera footage documenting the encounter between Payne and Wubbels. The chief said it was the first time he had seen the video in full. The footage became public Thursday during a news conference held by Wubbels’ attorney, Karra Porter, who said no claim or lawsuit has been filed.

“I am sad at the rift this has caused between law enforcement and the nurses we work so closely with,” Brown said. ”I want to be clear, we take this very seriously.”

“What I saw is completely unacceptable to the values of my administration and of the values of the Salt Lake City Police Department,” added Biskupski. “I extend a personal apology to Ms. Wubbels for what she has been through for simply doing her job.”

City offices, including the police department, were bombarded with social media backlash and phone calls as the video skipped around the country Thursday and Friday. And several city and state officials weighed in on Payne’s conduct, including Gov. Gary Herbert, who tweeted Friday morning that Wubbels’ arrest was ”disturbing” and that the city’s police should ”rectify the situation.”

Payne arrived at the hospital July 26, seeking a blood sample from a burned and unconscious patient, 43-year-old William Gray, who had been involved in a fiery collision the same day in northern Utah. Gray was driving a semi north on U.S. 89/91 near Sardine Canyon when a man fleeing from the Utah Highway Patrol crashed a pickup truck into him head-on, according to Logan Police, who investigated the crash. That man, Marcos Torres, 26, died at the scene. 

Logan police Capt. Tyson Budge said an investigator on the crash called Salt Lake City police and requested the department get a blood draw on Gray. Budge said such a request is routine, especially involving serious injury or fatal accidents, despite the fact that Gray was not a suspect in the crash. ”It’s being thorough, and documenting everything in a serious crash,” Budge said. 

The video footage shows Wubbels explaining that blood cannot be taken from an unconscious patient unless the patient is under arrest, unless there is a warrant allowing the draw or unless the patient consents. Payne acknowledges in the footage that none of those requirements is in place, but he insists that he has the authority to obtain the draw, according to the footage.

After Wubbels consults with several hospital officials about the policy, Payne tells her she is under arrest and grabs her, pulling her arms back and handcuffing her, then putting her in a patrol car. Wubbels screams, ”Stop! Stop! I did nothing wrong!”

In Payne’s report of the episode, he writes that Lt. James Tracy had ordered him to over the phone to arrest Wubbels if she refused to allow him to get a blood sample.

But after Tracy arrived, he learned that the hospital automatically draws and tests blood, and that accident investigators often get a warrant to access the hospital record of the blood draw, Tracy wrote in his own report.

Tracy wrote that it was ultimately determined “that we would release the nurse and write our reports and detectives could decide if charges were appropriate or not for this case.” Police spokeswoman Christina Judd declined to say if the second officer put on leave was Tracy.

Another officer, Denton Harper, who was dispatched to the hospital to assist Payne, wrote in his report that he asked Payne “why he didn’t look into drafting a search warrant for the patient’s blood. Payne told me Logan Police Department said they didn’t have enough probable cause to do so.”

Gill said he reached out to the police chief and the mayor late Friday morning expressing his concern and requesting a criminal investigation into the episode. The district attorney said he asked Brown to find an outside agency to look into the case, and by the end of the day, Unified had agreed to look into it. 

Gill said once the investigation is handed over to his office, prosecutors can decide if any laws were broken and if there is “somebody who should be held accountable.” He added that he was grateful that the mayor and chief were “committed to transparency” and were in support of further investigation.

The district attorney wouldn’t specify whether the investigation will be centered on the officer’s actions or something else, saying it would be unfair to make that call without having all the evidence in front of him.

Judd said the agency had initiated an internal affairs investigation within hours of the July 26 encounter. Payne was initially taken off the blood-draw team, and allowed to stay on desk duty as a detective. But, by Friday, as a criminal investigation got underway, he was placed on administrative leave.

The internal affairs investigators would gather the footage, and conduct interviews with all parties involved, then present the information and a recommendation to Chief Brown. Such a probe could result in Payne’s firing.

Payne could not be reached for comment Friday.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City's Police Chief Mike Brown and Mayor Jackie Biskupski hold a press conference at the City and County building on Friday, Sept. 1, 2017, to apologize for an officer handcuffing a hospital nurse for refusing a blood draw from an unconscious patient.

Judd said that soon after the blood-draw episode, the assistant chief quickly apologized to hospital administration for the encounter and arrest. The department examined its policy for blood draws, which was tweaked, and committed to additional training for its officers who conduct draws. The department has continued to meet with university medical officials in recent weeks, she said, to ensure adequate procedures are in place so ”it doesn’t happen again.”

The updated policy, provided by the department, states that a blood draw requires consent by the subject, or a search warrant — noting that ”implied consent” by the subject of the draw is no longer allowed. The updated policy also notes that ”blood draws are subject to established search and seizure laws.”

Payne is one of about 10 officers who are certified to take blood from people who have been involved in serious crashes or other accidents, or are suspected of driving under the influence, Judd said. They carry their own blood-draw kits, she said, and are often called upon by other police departments, such as Logan, to take blood at Salt Lake City hospitals. 

Judd said there was some confusion about the video, with many people assuming “that the officer was demanding that the nurse draw the blood.” But Judd said Payne was in fact ”demanding to find out where Gray was” being treated in the burn unit of the hospital, so Payne could draw the blood himself. (Gray remained in serious condition at the hospital this week, officials there said.)

Several Salt Lake City Council members and state officials, including Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, who heads the Senate’s judiciary committee, weighed in on the encounter Friday, with Weiler saying he would “stand against any form of unnecessary police brutality or inappropriate behavior.”

Councilman Derek Kitchen posted on Facebook that the bodycam footage “is one of the most disturbing things I’ve seen in awhile.“

Many others around the country apparently agreed.

The video caused an uproar on social media, and multiple national and international news outlets picked up the story Friday. Thousands of people angrily commented on the police department’s Facebook page, many demanding Payne’s firing or suspension. Other Utah police agencies were also being mistakenly bombarded by angry social media commenters, including the Unified Police Department and South Salt Lake police.

A change.org petition called ”Justice for Alex Wubbels” had about 85,000 supporters by Friday evening, while various YouTube videos documenting the encounter had been viewed millions of times. And the local organization Utah Against Police Brutality announced it was holding a protest rally at 6 p.m. Saturday at the Salt Lake City Public Safety Building

National nursing associations weighed in, too. 

“It is outrageous and unacceptable that a nurse should be treated in this way for following her professional duty to advocate on behalf of the patient as well as following the policies of her employer and the law,” American Nurses Association President Pam Cipriano said in a statement.

Jean Ross, co-president of National Nurses United, the largest union and professional association of registered nurses, said there was ”no excuse” for Payne’s actions, which she added would send a ”chilling message about the safety of nurses and the rights of patients.”

Hospital administrators sent an open letter to faculty and staff Friday morning. It said when law enforcement officers request blood samples, they should immediately be directed to a supervisor. It said that since the incident, hospital staff has worked with Salt Lake City police to ”create a clear policy” that allows for better communication and protects nurses and patients. 

“During a stressful situation Nurse Wubbels chose to focus first and foremost on the care and well-being of her patient,” the letter said. ”She followed hospital procedures and protocols in this matter and was acting in her patient’s best interest.”

Wubbels, in a statement, said she accepted the apologies of the chief and mayor.

“The outpouring of support has been beyond what I could have imagined,” she said. “Since the incident, the city has taken this matter seriously, and I believe that positive change will occur.”

Tribune reporters Jessica Miller, Tiffany Frandsen, Pamela Manson and Mariah Noble contributed to this story.