Commentary: A ‘badge-heavy’ approach was obviously the wrong one in nurse incident

On Sept. 1 a police body camera video was released showing the dramatic arrest of nurse Alex Wubbels by Salt Lake City police Detective Jeff L. Payne.

To the casual observer, the drama of the arrest takes mere seconds to unfold. The immediate impression, and the one narrated by most news outlets, is fairly straightforward: Ms. Wubbels stands her ground protecting her patient’s rights. She prints out the hospital’s consent policy and raises her supervisor on the phone to support her position. When Ms. Wubbels’ supervisor tells officer Payne that he is making a mistake by threatening Ms. Wubbels, officer Payne erupts and forcibly drags Ms. Wubbels out of the emergency room, handcuffs her and places her in a police car, citing obstruction of a police investigation. However, the nearly 20-minute-long video leaves a lot to be analyzed.

Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski stated that “I been working with Salt Lake City Police Department to increase our use of de-escalation techniques and we have had great success, and this incident is a troubling set back to those efforts.”

While we wonder whether Payne received that training, it is not clear from the video that de-escalation is the central issue. Whatever de-escalation opportunities occurred before the video starts, it is clear that by the start of the video both sides are already entrenched in their positions and well on their way to a showdown.

Furthermore, de-escalation probably does not resolve the basic impasse, even if it may have led to a more civil arrest. The problem appears to be that Wubbels and Payne had fundamentally different objectives that simply could not be reconciled.

The video does reveal a lot about Payne’s approach to conflict and negotiation.  He relies entirely on the authority of his badge to pursue his goal, apparently without any consideration of less authoritarian approaches. In law enforcement the term “badge-heavy” is used to refer to officers who are quick to wield their authority over citizens and who will not bend or brook any disagreement.

Early in the video Payne notes with some surprise that he may have to arrest Wubbels for obstruction, while admitting, “I’ve never had to go this far before.” Clearly Payne expects a badge-heavy approach to work and it is revealing that Payne’s angry outburst is triggered by Wubbels’ supervisor directly questioning his authority and criticizing his approach.

Police Chief Mike Brown stated that “Immediate steps were taken and within 12 hours, bodycam footage was reviewed and an internal affairs investigation started. We’ve looked at the actions that took place, the policies that could have prevented it, and the training that must be done.”

In addition to reviewing policy and procedure the Salt Lake City Police Department should also focus on training the cognitive skills that officers must rely on when confronted with situations that do not fit or overtly challenge established procedure. In this instance, four basic skills come to mind.

First, Payne or his supervisor needed to recognize the boundary conditions of their procedures: they were not able to force compliance and needed to consider different approaches for satisfying the needs of the investigation.

Second, Payne needed to be comfortable in an ambiguous situation: his anger and frustration demonstrate an emotional response rather than a professional command of the situation.

Third, Payne needed better situational awareness: he needed to recognize that Wubbels was not going to be intimidated into compliance because from her perspective doing so would violate the hospital’s privacy policy and the patient’s rights; authority and force were the wrong tools to use.

Finally, Payne and his supervisor needed to employ a problem-solving rather than a proceduralist mindset. It turned out that the hospital had already taken a blood sample from the comatose truck driver as is routine in such cases. This information Wubbels willingly shared when asked. A little patience might have resulted in the police department gaining access to the test results.

By breaking this video down, we can see that the content and context of this seconds’ long drama become a rich case study for specific future training opportunities.

Kevin Gabbard and John F. Schmitt are consultants with Shadow Box, a company that develops and implements training for first responders and the military.