A state audit of Salt Lake City police’s policies found that in situations where the public interest is extreme, such as when University Hospital nurse Alex Wubbels was arrested for refusing to draw blood from an unconscious patient, the department should look at getting information to the public more quickly.
The internal investigation policy was one of three things reviewed by the Office of the State Auditor, which released its findings Tuesday. The audit also looked at off-duty employment by Salt Lake City officers and whether police managers understand religious accommodations outlined in the Civil Rights Act.
Despite public criticism, the audit found police followed policy in investigating the nurse Wubbels incident. The audit did not look at how or why the incident occurred in the first place, or whether the discipline handed down was appropriate.
Wubbels was arrested July 26, 2017, by Detective Jeff Payne after she refused to draw blood from an unconscious patient at University Hospital involved in a fatal accident. Wubbels told Payne she could not draw blood from a patient who isn’t under arrest without a warrant. Payne insisted he had implied consent to get the blood. When Wubbels failed to comply, Payne grabbed her, handcuffed her and dragged her out to his vehicle.
Body camera footage of the incident was made public by Wubbels’ attorney, Karra Porter, not by police. The audit points out that police disciplinary information generally remains confidential, but the public found the lack of transparency concerning.
In October, Wubbels agreed to a $500,000 settlement with Salt Lake City and the University of Utah.
Charges never were filed against Wubbels; Payne was fired in October, and Lt. James Tracy, the watch commander that day, was demoted to the rank of officer. Both men are appealing those actions to the Salt Lake City Civil Service Commission.
The audit found that Salt Lake City police policy gives 75 days to conduct an internal investigation and hand down discipline. It found this timeframe to be within the norm for law enforcement agencies.
The internal investigation started on July 26, 2017, and took 35 days. Payne was fired Oct. 10, making the entire process span 80 days. The audit found that to be reasonable.
However, it notes that the “public appeared displeased with the length of time taken to investigate and discipline the officers involved.” Further, while in line with other police agencies, the audit noted the timeframe to review an officer’s actions “contrasts particularly starkly” to that of a private employee.
“These employment protections, especially those provided in the [memorandum of understanding with Salt Lake City], appear to heavily favor the officer to the disadvantage of the public and SLC taxpayers,” the audit states.
Chief Mike Brown, in a written response to the auditors, said that while most private employees can be fired “at will,” most public employees, such as police officers, are entitled to due process before any disciplinary decision can be made.
But Brown added that he would “take under advisement” the audit’s recommendation to consider changes to the degree of protections afforded to employees when the current labor agreement with his officers expires.
Attorney J.D. Lauritzen, one of the attorneys who represented Wubbels, issued a statement in which he said, “I agree with the public’s concerns acknowledged in the audit about the investigative process into police officer misconduct. As the audit suggests, the public has a right to be concerned if police officer misconduct is investigated under a different set of rules than those for average citizens.
“In my opinion, the contrast between how police misconduct is investigated, and how the misconduct of average citizens is investigated, only serves to create greater distance between the police and the communities they serve.”
While the audit, overall, focused more on the Wubbels incident, it also looked into police moonlighting and management’s understanding of religious accommodations.
According to the audit, several department managers said they believed a request for religious accommodation should be treated the same as any other request for being excused from work.
However, the Civil Rights Act dictates that as long as it is reasonable, an employer must accommodate employees’ religious needs. The audit recommended the department be trained on the Civil Rights Act by the city’s human resources department. Brown agreed.
The audit also looked at secondary employment within the department. The practice — picking up private security shifts for private companies — is common in law enforcement. However, the audit found it could be confusing to have officers working in a police uniform while being paid by a private entity.
“Members of the community may be confused as to the officers’ actual employer and loyalties,” the audit states.
The audit recommended looking at private companies contracting with the department, so that individual officers are paid directly from the department rather than the secondary employer. However, it acknowledges the extra hours paid for by the department would likely trigger overtime, forcing the department to pass the additional cost on to the private company.
That could create competition with other nearby police agencies that allow officers to be paid directly from a private company. The hypothetical given in the audit report posed that if Salt Lake City police changed policy, it could be cheaper for events in Salt Lake City, such as a Utah Jazz game, to hire West Valley City police for security so organizers don’t have to pay overtime costs. That could lead to fewer side jobs for Salt Lake City officers.
The audit suggested the best way to go would be to have state statute changed to allow for a level playing field for all officers. In his response, Brown said the department will not be changing moonlighting policies.