University of Utah police chief admits his department ‘could have stepped up’ instead of standing by during nurse’s arrest

(Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gordon Crabtree, CEO of University of Utah Hospital speaks at a press conference held at the U of U Medical Center regarding policy changes resulting from the arrest of nurse Alex Wubbels, Monday, September 4, 2017.

University of Utah law enforcement officials are facing increased scrutiny over their handling of the tense encounter at University Hospital on July 26 that resulted in the arrest of a nurse by a Salt Lake City police detective.

Nurse Alex Wubbels has expressed dismay that U. police and security did not protect her before Detective Jeff Payne arrested her. Investigative reports released Wednesday — including a Salt Lake City Police Department internal affairs report and another prepared by the city’s independent Civilian Review Board — also single out U. officers and security for not trying to defuse the situation. 

U. police Chief Dale Brophy declined an interview request Thursday. A university spokesman instead sent The Salt Lake Tribune a public relations video interview with Brophy addressing the situation. The interview was conducted several days after Aug. 31, when Wubbels’ attorney released body camera footage of the arrest. 

“We could have stepped up and been a champion and advocate for Alex at that time,” Brophy says in the video. “Having seen the video and firsthand what she went through, and what she tried to do to de-escalate and solve the problem, I think that somebody else — [university] security and/or police — could have stepped up and taken that role from her and been the advocate for her like they should’ve been.”

Payne arrested Wubbels, manhandling her and putting her in a hot patrol car, after she refused to allow him to obtain a blood sample from an unconscious patient injured in a fiery crash in Cache County, citing hospital policy. The full encounter was captured on police body cameras and hospital security footage. It sparked national outrage after it was released and spurred multiple investigations — including an ongoing criminal probe. 

‘Should have been done differently’

Wubbels called hospital security after she realized Payne was gradually becoming agitated. They responded but did nothing to assist her, according to the footage and reports. 

When a U. officer arrived on scene, Wubbels asked him to protect her because Payne had threatened her with arrest, acting on orders from his watch commander, Lt. James Tracy.

“For his part, the University of Utah Police Officer informed Ms. Wubbels that, if she interfered with [Payne‘s] investigation, she would be obstructing justice and he would not prevent you from arresting her,” according to Payne’s internal affairs report. 

U. security officers, which also fall under the Brophy-led Department of Public Safety, told Wubbels the situation was a “police matter” and they couldn‘t “get involved,” the internal affairs report states.

(Salt Lake City Police Department/Courtesy of Karra Porter) In this July 26, 2017, frame grab from video taken from a police body camera and provided by attorney Karra Porter, nurse Alex Wubbels is arrested by a Salt Lake City police officer at University Hospital in Salt Lake City. The Utah police department is making changes after the officer dragged Wubbels out of the hospital in handcuffs when she refused to allow blood to be drawn from an unconscious patient.

According to bodycam footage, as Payne moves to arrest Wubbels — grabbing and chasing her — she screams and backs into the U. police officer, who places a hand on Wubbels’ shoulder, apparently assisting Payne. (Other hospital employees appear to try and talk Payne down as the arrest is taking place.)

Later, as Wubbels sits in Payne’s squad car, the same U. officer, identified in police reports as Steven Worona, approaches Payne and Tracy, telling them he may be able to help obtain the blood.

“We know this guy’s on burn [unit] right? I can get you guys up to burn, then we can weasel around from there and try to figure it out up there, if you guys are open to that idea,” he tells the Salt Lake City officers.

Payne indicates he is open to trying that. But Tracy then says such a maneuver isn’t necessary, that they will direct Logan police, the agency which requested the blood draw, to get the blood using a warrant. 

In a University of Utah police report obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune, Worona writes only a single sentence about the episode: “I was requested to assist SLCPD in lawfully obtaining patient information which resulted in a staff member being arrested by SLCPD.”

The investigative reports say a third SLCPD officer dispatched to the scene, Denton Harper, also failed to try and de-escalate the situation.

“[Harper] failed to intervene, to ‘save’ [Payne] from his increasing pique ...” the Civilian Review Board report states. “The U of U Police did not intervene to calm down [Payne], and as expected, the private hospital security staff were nothing more than observers. In other words, not one officer or security officer intervened with the escalating [Payne], and apparently, none of them knew the law any better than [Payne] did.”

Brophy states in the video that his department has debriefed the episode, “to make sure it never happens again.” Officers also are undergoing additional de-escalation training, he said. Meanwhile, hospital officials are drafting a new policy that will require police to interact with a hospital supervisors, not nurses, and prevent police from entering the emergency room, burn unit or other patient areas. 

“We have thousands of interactions here at the hospital on a yearly basis, and 99 percent of them go really well,” Brophy says in the video. “This is one that went really wrong and eroded all of that trust that we’ve been trying to build up [with the public].”

Similar to Salt Lake City police Chief Mike Brown and Mayor Jackie Biskupski, some have questioned how and why Brophy did not see the bodycam footage until it was released by Wubbels’ attorney — more than a month after the arrest. 

University spokesman Chris Nelson on Thursday said U. officials, including Brophy, met with Salt Lake City officials to discuss the episode the following day and were aware body camera footage existed. Several days later, U. officials including Brophy reviewed security footage of the incident — but they did not request the body camera footage until about a week later. According to Nelson, it then took Salt Lake City police several weeks to send them the footage, not arriving until the same day it was released publicly by Wubbels.

“[I]n retrospect there are a lot of things that should have been done differently — including expediting our request to SLCPD for the body cam footage,” Nelson wrote in an email.

(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.

‘A terrible mistake’

Also Thursday, Payne’s attorney reacted to the scathing internal affairs and Civilian Review Board reports. An attorney for Tracy did not respond to messages seeking comment.

Payne and Tracy now have about 20 days to respond to the internal affairs investigation, after which Brown will use the reports to make a decision on the officers’ future. 

“It was actually pretty well done,” Skordas said of the internal affairs report. “I don’t necessarily agree with the conclusions and the complaints they sustained, but I think their factual recitation is pretty accurate.”

Skordas declined to say which of Payne’s six department and city policy violations he takes issue with. But he said some of the violations appeared to be “ticky tack” — meant to help justify “what I think they‘re going to do to Jeff.”

“They can justify major discipline with this report when it‘s not warranted here,” Skordas said, adding he believes the conclusion of the report would have been less scathing had the videos not been released publicly.

Skordas, however, acknowledged his client should face some consequences for his actions. 

“He made a terrible mistake,” the attorney said. “But let‘s not overstate it because it’s become a YouTube sensation.”