Utah police officer fired after manhandling, arresting nurse who was doing her job

Published on Wednesday, 11 October 2017 08:56 - Written by Derek Hawkins, The Washington Post

A Salt Lake City police detective was fired and his supervisor demoted Tuesday for their roles in the violent arrest of a nurse who was manhandled and shoved screaming into a squad car as she tried to protect the legal rights of an unconscious patient.

Detective Jeff Payne was fired and James Tracy, his watch commander, was demoted two ranks from lieutenant to officer after an internal review by the Salt Lake City Police Department found their actions toward the nurse violated department policy and undermined public trust.

"I have lost faith and confidence in your ability to continue to serve as a member of the Salt Lake City Police Department," Chief Mike Brown wrote in a termination letter to Payne that was posted by the Deseret News.

"I am deeply troubled by your lack of sound, professional judgment and your discourteous, disrespectful and unwarranted behavior, which unnecessarily escalated a situation that could and should have been resolved in a manner far different from the course of action you chose to pursue," the letter read.

Payne is a 27-year veteran of the department, and Tracy has worked in law enforcement for 22 years, spending nine years as a lieutenant in Salt Lake City. Attorneys for both men told local media that they plan to appeal the decision.

"I do think that Salt Lake City did a fair job of doing the investigation, and I think that their findings are, by and large, accurate," Panye's attorney Greg Skordas told the Salt Lake Tribune. "But I think the chief reacted to a lot of public pressure and scrutiny in making a decision that doesn't fit the conduct."

Police body camera footage captured Payne erupting at nurse Alex Wubbels of the University of Utah Hospital on July 26 after she refused his request to draw blood from an unconscious truck driver who was involved in a head-on collision with a suspect fleeing police in another vehicle.

Hospital policy, state law and federal law all required Payne to present a warrant or get the patient's consent to collect a blood sample. Payne had neither.

Wubbels, the charge nurse on duty, politely explained the hospital's policy and even got a hospital supervisor on the phone to defend her. After a tense exchange that lasted several minutes, Payne snapped. He could be seen in multiple body camera videos grabbing Wubbels by the arms, handcuffing her and forcing her into an unmarked car as she cried "you're assaulting me" and "this is crazy."

Wubbels was later released without charges. The truck driver, who was a reserve officer at an Idaho police department, died late last month.

The footage went viral after Wubbels and her attorney played it at a news conference in early September, stoking a heated national debate about police use of force and eliciting a chorus of condemnations from nurses' associations and others.

Payne and Tracy were placed on leave pending the investigation, and Payne was fired from his part-time job as an ambulance driver. Brown and Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski publicly apologized to Wubbles, saying she never should have been arrested for doing her job. The hospital responded by barring law enforcement from patient-care areas and direct contact with nurses.

Brown called Tracy the "catalyst that led to the arrest" in his letter Tuesday demoting the officer. He wrote that Tracy had ordered Payne to arrest Wubbles for interfering with a police investigation "without fully understanding the nature of the situation." The move "created chaos" and violated department policy, Brown wrote.

The chief acknowledged in his letter that Payne had withheld important information that might have changed Tracy's mind, but said it did not excuse his actions that day.

"Your lack of judgment and leadership in this matter is unacceptable," Brown wrote to Tracy.

"Substantial damage has been done to the Department's relationship with nurses, the Hospital and, equally important, the public we serve," he wrote. "It will take considerable time and resources to rebuild that trust."

Wubbels and her attorney Karra Porter say they went public with the footage of the arrest because they believed police were not taking the matter seriously enough. Porter told the Tribune on Tuesday that she was pleased that Payne had been fired, and said she had not formed an opinion about Tracy's discipline.

"Chief Brown took significant steps, and seems to understand the importance of regaining public trust," Porter wrote in a tweet. "But further discussions are needed."

".@KarraPorter says she thinks Jeff Payne is sorry he got caught, not as sorry for his actions. #NurseWubbels#KUTV2News

- Daniel Woodruff (@danielmwoodruff) October 11, 2017"

Porter told the Tribune that she and Wubbels were planning to meet with Salt Lake City officials and University of Utah police to talk about how to move forward. They were considering legal action, she said.

Wubbels has faulted officers from the university for refusing to intervene in her arrest after she asked for their help. University of Utah Police Chief Dale Brophy apologized to Wubbels in September, saying footage of the incident showed "how poorly the situation was handled."

In a news conference on Tuesday, Wubbels told reporters she was grateful her arrest was recorded.

"I think I owe it to the body camera footage," she said. "Without that, my story never would have had the impact it has had."