Salt Lake City police endure growing wave of public criticism after nurse’s arrest

SLCPD receives thousands of angry calls and emails, even tying up emergency dispatch lines Friday.

(Alex Gallivan | Special to the Tribune) People protest at an Emergency Rally hosted by Utah Against Police Brutality, in response to the arrest of U of U nurse Alex Wubbels. Wubbels was arrested by SLCPD Detective Jeff Payne after she refused to take blood from an unconscious patient, which is against hospital policy.

The shouts of about 100 or so Utahns echoed loudly Saturday evening in the courtyard of the Salt Lake Police Department with one demand: Fire Detective Jeff Payne.

The Salt Lake City police detective has been the focus of a barrage of criticism and anger this week after body camera footage was released showing Payne arrest University Hospital nurse Alex Wubbels on July 26, when she refused to allow him to draw a patient’s blood.

Those who gathered at a Utah Against Police Brutality rally on Saturday evening asked for the detective’s immediate firing and called for more transparency from government officials.

“This was an egregious act of police violence against one of the most important people in our community — a nurse,” organizer David Newlin told the crowd. “Someone who gives her life, gives her time to heal the most vulnerable among us.”

Protesters chanted, “Acts of police brutality, not in our community,” and called for justice for Wubbels as they held signs declaring, “Hands off our nurses” and “Fire Detective Payne.”

Those who protested Saturday weren’t the only ones critical of Payne and the Salt Lake City Police Department’s handling of the case. Members of the department’s internal affairs unit had about 300 new emails and 150 voicemails when they arrived at the office Friday morning.

For Salt Lake City police, it was only the beginning.

Chief Mike Brown’s office received hundreds of phone calls and perhaps thousands of emails by the end of the day, department spokeswoman Christina Judd said Saturday. Other offices in the department took in a similar onslaught. The backlash was especially strong on Facebook, where thousands of commenters — many of them nurses — excoriated the department for Payne’s actions, saying officials had not acted swiftly enough while calling for his firing. 

“In thirty years of nursing across this country I have never seen a healthcare worker violently arrested for following hospital policy and the nurse practice act,” Debbie Hutchinson commented on the department‘s Facebook page.

People even called 911 to complain. For a time, Judd said, the department’s dispatch center averaged a call a minute about Payne and the arrest. She said some people called and yelled at dispatchers. Many others would call to report an assault at University Hospital — then recount exact details of the July episode in which Payne grabbed at Wubbels, forced handcuffs on her and placed her in a hot patrol car. 

“We had a problem yesterday,” Judd said. ”That tied up some resources that are dangerous to tie up.”

Late in the day, the department sent a tweet asking those with concerns to call a special number to complain and “not tie up the 911 & emergency lines.” That number — a special complaint line with a voicemail box that has unlimited storage — has been used only three or four times in the past decade in especially large crisis situations, Judd said. She said department staff are reviewing many of the voicemails and emails and trying to respond, even if some of the responses are generic. 

Even Utah police departments that had nothing to do with the episode were feeling the wrath of Wubbels’ arrest. South Salt Lake police spokesman Gary Keller said his department mistakenly received many phone calls and ”nasty” messages about Payne on Friday. In a Facebook post, South Salt Lake police Chief Jack Carruth agreed the video had been “shocking for all of us to see” and commended Wubbels, before clarifying no South Salt Lake officers had been involved. The Unified Police Department similarly pointed people in Salt Lake City‘s direction, adding ”we are two completely different police departments.”

After meeting with the Salt Lake County district attorney, Salt Lake City officials said Unified would conduct a criminal probe into the episode. An internal affairs unit investigation into Payne’s actions is underway, as is one by the Police Civilian Review Board, Mayor Jackie Biskupski said 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.

As the criminal investigation began Friday, Payne and another unnamed officer were placed on paid administrative leave. Officials said after the incident, Payne had immediately been taken off a team of officers that is certified to conduct blood draws — but he was able to continue his normal duties as a detective.

Many questioned in recent days why it took so long for Payne and the other officer to be placed on leave — including Utah Rep. Chris Stewart. “[W]hy did it take a month for administrative action?” Stewart wrote on Twitter Friday night. ”If any police or civilian leaders were aware of this video and took no action they need to explain why?”

Judd said department leaders felt by taking Payne off the blood draw team, his ”interactions with the public” would be properly diminished. She said there is no department requirement to place an officer on leave during an internal affairs investigation. ”It’s a case-by-case basis,” Judd said. 

Brown added at a news conference Friday that he felt Payne would not have ”access” to get himself into similar situations if he was taken off the blood draw team.

When an investigation into an employee by an outside police agency begins, however, ”staff is put on administrative leave immediately to facilitate that process,” Judd said. She said the Unified police probe began Friday, so Payne and the other officer were placed on leave.

Wubbels could not be reached for comment on Saturday — she was enjoying a quiet day with her family, her attorney Karra Porter said.

(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.

The nurse did not attend the Saturday rally supporting her, but Porter spoke to the gathering, telling protestors that Wubbels decided to go public with the video because she wanted to ”start a dialogue.”

“She felt she owed it to anyone this has ever happened to,” the attorney said. ”To every nurse that has ever been bullied by a law enforcement officer who didn‘t have the video, so people [didn’t] believe them.”

Porter said Wubbels hoped nurses in rural Utah might see the video and had wondered to her attorney if the footage would reach health care workers in places like Brigham City.

Now, Porter said, it’s not just nurses in Utah that have watched the footage — people around the world have viewed the video and sent their support to Wubbels.

The attorney said her client, a former alpine skier who competed in the 1998 and 2002 Winter Olympics, has been encouraged by the response from the police department, which has included changing its blood draw policy and boosting training for officers.

Wubbels was scheduled to be in New York City on Monday for an appearance on the “TODAY Show,” with a CNN interview scheduled for later in the week. 

“The momentum still seems to be growing,” Porter said.