Tribune Editorial: There’s no excuse for the apparent police brutality against a local nurse

This was not a case of a lone officer on a dark street approaching some unknown person who may or may not have been dangerous.

(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.

When a person has the Constitution of the United States, the Supreme Court of the United States, the University of Utah and the Hippocratic Oath on her side, one might suppose that she would win the argument.

And, in the long-run, University Hospital nurse Alex Wubbels was shown to be clearly in the right.

But it appears that, for a short, dreadful time on July 26, the price Wubbels paid for being right was being harshly manhandled and wrongfully detained by a Salt Lake City police officer who was demanding to take a blood sample from one of Wubbels’ severely injured patients.

According to body cam and security footage that has now circled the globe, Detective Jeff Payne was demanding to be allowed to take a blood sample from a severely burned truck driver who had been involved in an accident earlier that day.

Nobody, at that moment, was under arrest. There was no search warrant. The patient was unconscious and could not give consent. There was no allegation, at the time or since, that the driver had been in any way impaired at the time of the crash, providing no probable cause for a search.

So, Wubbels tried to make clear to Payne, there would be no blood draw. The hospital’s policy on the matter was clear.

And that, to all appearances, was when Payne snapped. He grabbed the nurse, pulled her hands behind her back, handcuffed her and dragged her out to a patrol car. For, it now seems clear, no reason at all.

Wubbels was never charged with any crime and, after the matter came to light Thursday, Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski and Police Chief Mike Brown issued profuse apologies to the nurse for what happened to her.

The legalities of the situation are such that the mayor and the chief are unlikely to say anything more about the matter until the police internal affairs investigation and a parallel Civilian Review Board examination are finished. But, to the rest of us, serious questions remain and firm action is necessary.

Unless the investigations turn up something that is not now apparent, it seems clear that Payne should already have lost his job, and that his certification to be a law enforcement officer should be permanently revoked. The fact that he was removed from the roll of officers who are allowed to take blood samples, but not placed on leave until the matter became public and a criminal investigation launched, can only serve to undermine public confidence in the whole department.

Going forward, officials must make sure that police officers are fully trained in the law of searches and in the policies of the medical institutions they interact with. It was also troubling to see other law enforcement officers who were present at the time do nothing to intervene or to de-escalate the situation, as it was to hear that Payne was acting on instructions from a police supervisor.

This was not a case of a lone officer on a dark street approaching some unknown person who may or may not have been dangerous. Wubbels posed no threat to anyone, and it was unconscionable for her to have been treated that way.

In too many of the too-frequent cases in which a young person of color has been gunned down by a police officer, someone is usually quick to rifle through the victim’s record in search of even the most minor blemish and seek to justify incidents of police brutality by proclaiming of the victim, ”He was no angel.”

People do not have to be angels to be deserving of being treated with respect and within the law.

But a nurse in a burn unit, who is trying to do nothing but protect her patients and uphold medical protocol, is an angel. And our police officers should treat her as such.