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.
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?”
I know our police have a very difficult job. But just watched the video of arrest of nurse Wubbels by Officer Payne. Incredibly disturbing.— Rep. Chris Stewart (@RepChrisStewart) September 2, 2017
I can't imagine Payne ever interacting with the public again. He has lost our trust. And why did it take a month for administrative action?— Rep. Chris Stewart (@RepChrisStewart) September 2, 2017
If any police or civilian leaders were aware of this video and took no action they need to explain why? The public trust is too fragile.— Rep. Chris Stewart (@RepChrisStewart) September 2, 2017
There are too many dedicated police officers in Salt Lake City to be tainted by this episode. Accountability is key to maintaining trust— Rep. Chris Stewart (@RepChrisStewart) September 2, 2017
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.
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.