Gehrke: The outrageous arrest of a nurse exposed Salt Lake City police for having bizarrely out-of-date policies

(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.

Alex Wubbels is a champion ski racer and competed in the 1998 and 2002 Winter Olympics.

But it’s hard to imagine she has ever seen things go downhill faster than they did when Detective Jeff Payne roughed her up and arrested her for simply doing her job.

The body camera footage of Wubbels’ arrest has made national headlines and drawn condemnation from around the country, with the social media world demanding Payne be fired from the Salt Lake City police force.

One thing is certain: Wubbels earned a gold medal for moxie.

She not only knew her job as a nurse, but she also knew the law and stood up for her patient in the face of a bully with a badge who was trying to conduct a patently unconstitutional blood draw of an unconscious crash victim.

Video of the incident is hard to watch as Wubbels, with her supervisor on the phone, calmly tries to explain to Payne that the hospital policy — which happens to reflect a series of clear rulings by state and federal courts — does not allow her to draw blood from an unconscious individual.

She stood her ground and for her trouble ended up getting her arms wrenched behind her back, handcuffed and dragged to a patrol car while she pleaded with Payne to stop.

“Help! Help! Somebody help me!” she pleaded. “Stop! Stop! I did nothing wrong!”

Two University of Utah police officers stood by and did nothing to intervene or try to defuse the situation.

Law enforcement veterans I’ve talked to were stunned by the utter failure by both Payne and his supervisor to ratchet down the situation.

They found it bizarre that the police policy in the state’s capital city appears to be at least 10 years out of date and nobody on the force has even noticed until now.

In 2001, Heather Jo Rodriguez was driving on Main Street in Salt Lake City and made a quick left turn in front of a school bus. The bus smashed her car, killing her passenger. Officers took a blood sample from an IV line doctors had inserted into Rodriguez’s arm and she had a blood alcohol level of 0.39, nearly five times the legal limit and enough to kill in some cases.

But the Utah Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that drawing blood is not so urgent that officers shouldn’t first get a warrant, although they allowed the blood results to be used as evidence.

In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court reiterated in Missouri v. McNeely that police have to get a warrant to draw blood without a subject’s consent. And last year, the court reiterated in Birchfield v. North Dakota that “implied consent” was not a basis to demand a blood draw.

To be clear, getting a warrant is not a big deal. For years, police have been able to get a judge to sign off on an electronic warrant within 30 minutes or less.

The fact that the policy was so outdated and that neither Payne, who had spent more than a decade doing blood draws, and apparently his supervising lieutenant, didn’t know the law was a shocking failure of officer training. It was, in the end, Lt. James Tracy who directed Payne to arrest Wubbels.

These are policies that are taught at the police academy, and they should be reinforced on a regular basis, according to law enforcement experts I spoke with, and have been adopted into the policies of other agencies around the state.

Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown said the department updated its policy manual after the incident with Wubbels. It now says: “Implied consent shall not be utilized as a method for obtaining a blood draw. Officers shall utilize the options of voluntary consent, a search warrant, or a medical draw.”

In essence: Wubbels was right; the police were wrong.

There is still an implied-consent provision in state law that likely needs to be repealed when the Legislature meets next year.

But really, the most astonishing piece of it is how quickly Payne snapped, grabbing Wubbels and shoving the nurse through the door and against the wall, wrenching her arms and slapping her into handcuffs.

Salt Lake City police have touted their “de-escalation” training and how it has helped avoid fatal police shootings. But what we saw on the video could easily be shown as an example of how not to respond to an incident.

Payne wasn’t being threatened. There was no urgency in resolving the dispute. Wubbels and her supervisor were responding calmly yet firmly in trying to work through the situation when the detective lashed out, using the sort of unjustified force that has to make anyone in law enforcement cringe, because it’s the type of incident that tarnishes the reputation of those who wear the badge.

Maybe some good will come from the incident: Salt Lake City has finally brought its policy into this decade, we’ve seen that body cameras can be a useful tool in policing the police, and Friday evening Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski asked the Unified Police Department to conduct an independent criminal investigation into Payne’s response.

Payne will be on administrative leave pending the outcome of the investigation. At the very least, he should be suspended and required to receive training to make sure this kind of incident doesn’t happen again. And Brown, the police chief, should ensure all his officers are trained on up-to-date policies.

And nurse Wubbels deserves our gratitude. After all, we look to men and women in uniform to protect our civil liberties. In this case, the woman in uniform happened to be wearing nursing scrubs.