By Fred Barbash and Derek Hawkin, The Washington Post
The University of Utah Hospital, where a nurse was manhandled and arrested by police as she protected the legal rights of a patient, has imposed new restrictions on law enforcement, including barring officers from patient-care areas and from direct contact with nurses.
Gordon Crabtree, interim chief executive of the hospital, said at a Monday news conference that he was “deeply troubled” by the arrest and manhandling of burn unit nurse Alex Wubbels on July 26. In accord with hospital policy and the law, she had refused to allow a Salt Lake City police officer to take a blood sample from an unconscious patient. Wubbels obtained a copy of the body cam video of the confrontation and, after consulting her lawyer, the hospital and police officials, released it last week.
“This will not happen again,” Crabtree said, praising Wubbels for “putting her own safety at risk” to “protect the rights of patients.”
Margaret Pearce, chief nursing officer for the University of Utah hospital system, said she was “appalled” by the officer’s actions and has already implemented changes in hospital protocol to avoid any repetition.
She said police will no longer be permitted in patient-care areas, such as the burn unit where Wubbels was the charge nurse on the day of the incident and from emergency rooms.
In addition, officers will have to deal with “house supervisors” instead of nurses when they have a request.
This will guarantee that nurses devote themselves entirely to patient care without interruptions, she said, while other officials deal with police requests.
The policy was implemented quietly in August, before the incident became public.
The incident, which has attracted nationwide attention in part because of the dramatic video, involved Detective Jeff Payne, who persisted in demanding a blood sample from an unconscious truck driver at the hospital who had earlier been involved in an accident stemming from police pursuit of a suspect.
The hospital and the law in Utah and nationwide require police to have a warrant or permission from the patient to draw a blood sample in such circumstances. Payne had neither.
After Wubbels politely and repeatedly read hospital policy to him and had a supervisor back her up on a speakerphone connection, Payne snapped. He seized hold of the nurse, shoved her out of the building and cuffed her hands behind her back. A bewildered Wubbels screamed “help me” and “you’re assaulting me” as the detective forced her into an unmarked car and accused her of interfering with an investigation.
On Friday, the police department said two of its employees had been placed on administrative leave pending the results of an investigation but did not give details. A criminal investigation is underway, according to Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill, and the city’s mayor and its police chief apologized to Wubbels in a statement.
Wubbels recounted the altercation with Payne in interviews with NBC’s “Today” show and CNN’s “New Day” on Monday morning. She told “Today” hosts that weeks after the incident she didn’t feel like police were being held accountable.
“The conversations I had with the Salt Lake City police initially were progressive, they wanted to walk down a path of positive change. But I did not have that same response from the university police and the university security,” Wubbels said. “So it was a little bit of a trigger to say, all right, this is what you need to see. If you’re not willing to see it then I’ll show it to you.”
Wubbels told “Today” that she didn’t want to “police the police,” but said she and her attorney were considering a lawsuit if the departments involved in the incident didn’t update their policies.
On CNN’s “New Day,” Wubbels said she felt betrayed by both Salt Lake City police and university security. She described how she tried to get guards to intervene, saying that Payne seemed angry from the moment he arrived. In the video, university officers can be seen standing by as Payne violently arrests the nurse.
— CNN (@CNN) September 4, 2017
“I was scared to death,” Wubbels said. “I went down into the emergency department to get help, to have someone protect me because I felt unsafe from officer Payne from the beginning.”
In Monday’s news conference, University of Utah Police Chief Dale Brophy apologized to Wubbels and hospital staff for his early response to the incident. He said he didn’t watch the body camera footage until Thursday evening and realized then that he didn’t take it seriously enough.
“I was able to see firsthand how poorly this situation was handled,” Brophy said. “This is not how law enforcement professionals should act.” He added that Wubbels “should not have been subjected to arrest for doing her job” and vowed to put his officers through de-escalation training.
The patient Wubbels sought to protect was 43-year-old William Gray, a truck driver who is also a reserve officer with the police department in Rigby, Idaho. Gray was driving down the highway near Logan, Utah, when a suspect fleeing police crossed into oncoming traffic and crashed head-on into his tractor trailer. The truck caught fire, and Gray was severely burned in the blaze. The suspect died in the crash.
The Rigby Police Department praised Wubbels’s professionalism in a statement Friday and thanked her for “standing firm.”
“Protecting the rights of others is a truly heroic act,” the statement read.
Gray was still recovering in the hospital, according to the department. He was not suspected of any wrongdoing in connection with the crash.
Wubbels, 41, has worked as a nurse at the hospital since 2009. She was previously a member of the U.S. alpine ski team and competed in the 1998 and 2002 Winter Olympics. “I think many of you know she was an Olympian,” said Crabtree. “In this event she was truly an Olympic-size hero.”
Hospital officials said she returned to the burn unit about a week and a half after the arrest. Wubbels said Monday she needed the time to “give my emotions a rest so that I could come out and be pragmatic and effective in my communication.”
“I stood my ground. I stood for what was right, which was to protect the patient,” Wubbels told CNN. “Any nurse, I think, would have done exactly what I did.”