The videotaped arrest of a nurse at a Salt Lake City hospital — after she told police, correctly, that they weren’t allowed to draw blood from an unconscious patient — has been roundly condemned by national nursing organizations, Utah officials and even the local police department.
The July 26 incident, captured by an officer’s body camera, was made public last week after the nurse came forward. Since then, several groups have echoed the nurse’s outrage, calling for greater consequences for the police detective in question and demanding increased awareness of patient-consent laws.
In the footage, Jeff Payne, a detective with the Salt Lake City Police Department, confronts Alex Wubbels, a nurse in the burn unit at the University of Utah Hospital, over her polite but firm insistence that police could not collect blood samples from a badly injured patient. Payne didn’t have a warrant, Wubbels pointed out. And the patient wasn’t conscious, so he couldn’t give consent.
Wubbels cited hospital policy in the video — showing Payne a printout of the rules just before he abruptly arrests her — but her actions also were in line with a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, which explicitly ruled last year that blood can be drawn from drivers only for probable cause, with a warrant.
In the moment, none of that seemed to matter to Payne, who snapped, seized hold of Wubbels, 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.
Wubbels, who was not criminally charged, played the footage at a news conference Thursday with her attorney. They called on police to rethink their treatment of hospital workers and said they had not ruled out legal action.
“I just feel betrayed, I feel angry, I feel a lot of things,” Wubbels said then. “And I’m still confused.”
Judging by the overwhelming reaction to the video, which has since been widely shared, many agree with Wubbels.
On Friday, the 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.
“What I saw is completely unacceptable to the values of my Administration and of the values of the Salt Lake City Police Department,” Mayor Jackie Biskupski (D) said. “I extend a personal apology to Ms. Wubbles for what she has been through for simply doing her job.”
However, the Salt Lake Tribune editorial board called for harsher consequences, saying the incident had raised “serious questions” about the city’s police department and wondering why Payne had not been fired immediately.
“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 board wrote Friday. “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.”
The Utah Nurses Association stated it was “deeply disturbed” by the video — and encouraged as many people as possible to view it to understand a nurse’s “ethical duty to act in the best interest of our patients at all times and in all settings.”
Nurses are bound by a code of ethics that dictates they must first promote the rights, health and safety of the patient, according to the American Nurses Association. By all measures, Wubbels followed that code.
Nurses usually learn about informed consent as part of their basic training, and most hospitals have clear policies about getting consent from patients, ANA Executive Director Debbie Hatmaker told The Washington Post.
As a nurse who used to frequently work with law enforcement, Hatmaker said, she had a “gut reaction” to watching the video of Wubbels’s arrest.
“You would expect law enforcement to be clear about what the law is, about consent,” Hatmaker said. “Of course, if there’s any question, they should be able to go through their chain of command, all the way up to their chief of police. … The fact that it escalated as quickly as it did in that moment seemed particularly outrageous.”
Even if Payne believed he had “implied consent” to draw the patient’s blood, it would not have applied under these circumstances, because Payne was trying to prove that the driver was not under the influence, criminal law professor Paul Cassell wrote in a guest piece for the Salt Lake Tribune.
“The ultimate requirement of our Constitution is that police must behave reasonably,” Cassell wrote for the newspaper. “Handcuffing a nurse and throwing her into a squad car is, given all of the circumstances here, not reasonable — and, it turns out, was not ultimately supportable under Utah law.”
The encounter started July 26 when a suspect speeding away from police in a pickup truck on a Utah highway smashed head-on into a truck driver, as local media reported. Medics sedated the truck driver, who was severely burned, and took him to the University of Utah Hospital. He arrived in a comatose state, according to the Deseret News. The suspect died in the crash.
A neighboring police department sent Payne, a trained police phlebotomist, to collect blood from the patient and check for illicit substances, as the Tribune reported. The goal was reportedly to protect the trucker, who was not suspected of a crime. Payne’s lieutenant ordered him to arrest Wubbels if she refused to let him draw a sample, according to the Tribune.
A 19-minute video from the body camera of a fellow officer shows the bitter argument that unfolded on the floor of the hospital’s burn unit. Things get especially rough at about the six-minute mark, when Payne seems to lose it. He paces toward the nurse and tries to swat the phone out of her hand.
“We’re done here,” he yells. He grabs Wubbels by the arms and shoves her through the automatic doors outside the building.
Wubbels screams. “Help! Help me! Stop! You’re assaulting me! Stop! I’ve done nothing wrong! This is crazy!”
Since the footage was made public, the unconscious patient has been identified as William Gray, a reserve officer with the Rigby Police Department in Idaho who is a full-time truck driver. That department said in a statement that it had not been aware of the incident until video of Wubbels’s arrest went viral, and it praised the nurse for her actions.
“The Rigby Police Department would like to thank the nurse involved and hospital staff for standing firm, and protecting Officer Gray’s rights as a patient and victim. Protecting the rights of others is truly a heroic act,” the department said. “It is important to remember that Officer Gray is the victim in this horrible event, and that at no time was he under any suspicion of wrongdoing.”
The incident prompted some health-care professionals to share their experiences about trying to protect the rights of patients in the face of law enforcement demands. Zachary Meisel, a doctor and professor of emergency medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, tweeted after watching Wubbels’s video that he faced a similar situation years ago, minus the arrest. At the time, a police officer had threatened to arrest him if he didn’t draw blood from a patient, even though the patient did not medically require any bloodwork.
Meisel wrote about that encounter for Slate in 2006:
Drawing the patient’s blood thus would serve only legal ends (which, given her slurred speech and tearful wails, seemed likely to benefit the prosecution). To step outside of my role as her caretaker seemed to violate fundamental tenets of our doctor-patient relationship. At the same time, I am an emergency physician trained in the field of public health and I know that alcohol is responsible for an enormous number of the tragedies that bring patients to the ER. I embrace efforts to reduce drunken driving, including helping to put the drivers behind bars. But the police wanted me to provide a tube of the patient’s blood that I had no medical reason to obtain. A perfect storm of competing interests — those of bioethics, the law, and public health — had come crashing into my ER.
“However worthy the goal of reducing injuries from drunken driving is, it is wrong to force a physician to flout central aspects of the doctor-patient relationship when the benefit to the patient is nil from her perspective and the benefit to society unclear, given the other available routes for testing. … In the end, the bar for infringing on civil liberties should be set higher when it’s a doctor or nurse who is in the position of undermining the rights of patients in the name of protecting the public. I am not sure this is a cause for which doctors would willingly to go to jail. But they shouldn’t have to.”