Apologies and Re-education Are Just Not Enough to Change the Status Quo
Two days ago was my first introduction to the story of nurse Alex Wubbels and her valiant effort to protect the person and privacy of her patient William Gray, from an illegal attempt by police officers to obtain a blood sample without warrant. Gray was at the time a patient in the burn unit of Salt Lake City’s, University Hospital in an induced coma following a horrendous accident. A high speed chase ensued after multiple 911 calls had reported an erratic driver. Police attempted a traffic stop of the vehicle driven by 26 year old Marco Torres, who then fled. During the chase the vehicle driven by Torres, seen here on video, swerves abruptly into oncoming traffic and then in a split second, hits the tractor trailer filled with sand head-on, driven by Gray. Both vehicles burst into an instantaneous fireball. The suspect died on impact, Gray was injured and severely burned.
Gray was taken a local hospital and then airlifted to University Hospital, where he was being cared for, when Salt Lake police detective, Jeff Payne was dispatched in an attempt to obtain blood samples from the victim. Unfortunately, the police in this instance did not have legal authority to do so.
Alex Wubbels was the charge nurse on duty and did an admirable job of explaining to the officer why she could not allow him to draw blood from the patient. Every nurse from their first day of nursing school is drilled almost continuously throughout their career on the privacy regulations of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). Privacy is extremely important in health care and there isn’t a person employed in any discipline of it, who isn’t keenly aware of and constantly working to maintain it. Not only that, but health care providers who break HIPAA regulations can be personally fined anywhere from $100-$50,000 for violations and are frequently for fired for such infractions. Professional health care licenses are also revoked for HIPAA violations, making it impossible to work until a lengthy process of petitioning your state board of licensure, in hopes of reinstatement. Your chances of keeping your job in health care, honestly are better if you are found to be stealing drugs from your hospital and taking them on the job, than committing a HIPAA violation. That’s how serious it is.
If you are one of the few people in the country who have yet to see the long version of Alex Wubbels’ altercation with the Salt Lake City PD, it’s quite heart wrenching, especially for someone like myself who spent 17 years as a cardiopulmonary RN. She did everything she was supposed to do. She did exactly what almost any nurse placed in this situation would. The officer who placed her under arrest and others on the scene, threatened, bullied, manhandled, handcuffed and then continue harassing her for an extended period of time, before eventually releasing her without charge.
I applaud her efforts here and her professionalism. However, in the aftermath I am extremely disappointed in the follow up to the situation.
This incident occurred over a month ago and it is only in past few days that anyone heard of it. Not until the body cam videos were released to the public had anything occurred. The only action taken by the Salt Lake City Police Dept., was to remove officer Payne from the blood draw unit and institute an “internal investigation”. I would imagine that the reason Wubbles decided to release the video to the public was because she was not satisfied with the response of police. Who would be happy with that? After the video went viral this week, now the police chief and the mayor are all seen on television, apologizing all over themselves for the behavior of the officers on scene. Even the District Attorney now cares. It’s a miracle! As a consolation prize, officer Payne who had only received the most cursory of wrist slaps for his egregious behavior and authoritative overreach, has only yesterday been suspended from duty. Apparently another officer who is yet unnamed, has been suspended as well. One would hope that it is the lieutenant who via radio, ordered her arrest, then arrived on scene and also verbally harassed nurse Wubbels for 15 minutes, as she sat handcuffed in the front seat of the police cruiser. One of his finer moments was, “Your policies are getting in the way of my law!”
It took a viral video to even get this far with the people in positions of power and authority to actually do something, other than the obligatory department internal investigation. The officer should have been immediately suspended from duty from the body cam video alone, until determination of what possible criminal charges should have been made for such offenses. As late as yesterday, Wubbels was interviewed and as she had stated previously in a press conference the day prior, she had not made up her mind as to whether or not she would bring civil suits against the officers involved or the police department itself.
When listening to her statements, that is when it occurred to me that here was one of the greatest opportunities ever to bring to light the all too common practice of police overstepping their legal boundaries and police violating rights of common people. I have watched countless video clips of police staging unconstitutional DUI stops, involving mandatory blood draws on demand, roadside strip and body cavity searches and too many more things to even list here. None of this has ever sparked the outrage that one overworked, nurse/mother in charge of a burn unit has caused. Americans love their nurses. It’s likely the most respected job in the U.S. today. It’s a tough job. Most people at some point in their lives are exposed to them. The public understands and appreciates the efforts of these largely unsung heroes, who do battle on behalf of others every single shift. You can tell just by looking at Wubbles on duty in the video, that she’s seen a lot of battles and is like most nurses, weary from the effort. She has that look of the typical nurse who works on a high stress, critical care unit. I’ve been in burn units before and even I don’t know how those nurses do it. It’s the most horrifying, painful, heartbreaking specialty that exists. I salute any nurse who’s ever done that job. People are moved by the kind of dedication it requires to do these jobs day in day out. Many people would never choose a career that hard and more could never even do it. It’s really that difficult, and that’s why the public loves them.
I do feel badly for her. I do. It’s a horrible situation to have gone through, but the decision to pursue a civil suit in light of the police department’s casual reaction until the video of the incident went viral; that should have been almost automatic. This is why I have this opinion. If you take the safety and privacy of one patient so seriously, how then can you not have the same amount of concern for the entire population of a country? By bringing suit against people in positions of authority who casually abuse the power of the badge and gun, backed up by a judicial system, which historically has bent over backwards to side with law enforcement against the common citizen; this is one of those rare instances when public opinion is so on the side of the victim, that real progress might be made. You should be morally obligated to go through with it for the good of all.
A full month had passed with absolutely no real action from the police department. The District Attorney apparently wasn’t aware of the incident nor was the Mayor. Only now are they reacting to it and it of course is politically motivated. It’s not because these people care so much about the people who were wronged or the intent of potentially wronging yet another, but because their careers depend upon public opinion. While this incident is in no way anywhere near as heinous as what goes on elsewhere across this country on a daily basis, it is something which has sort of woken people up just a tiny bit from their complacent slumber, and made them take notice that some things going on are just not right. That is what is really important.
I really wish Alex Wubbles was more proactive rather than passive-aggressive in the aftermath. If she was, if she had come out in her press conference with her attorney and announced that she fully intended to file suit against those involved, I truly would have seen her as a bonafide heroine. Now, all I can really think is that she was just a nurse, doing her job, because those were the rules and that her job depended upon her following the rules.
In multiple interviews, Wubbels has expressed that her reluctance of bringing suit against anyone or entity involved. She said that she had possession of the videos for quite some time. As authorities dragger their feet, it seems she became restless and in an ABC News interview yesterday stated:
“I felt a duty to everyone that has had this happen to them, that hasn’t had the evidence that I have, to show it and that seemed like that was a good time to do so. And I think the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. And I think any time any one of us is in a situation that we need to learn from, we need to go back and look at it and try and do better. Right now I think we need to do better. We need to communicate better with each other and we need to be more respectful of each other and that’s sort of the education that and information I’m trying to be a part of”
When asked if she felt the authorities had moved quickly enough on the matter.
“I think they recognized the situation. We’re still moving forward. This is by no means is even close to over. It’s just getting started if you will, but they did give us indication that they were moving.
I really wanted to reach rural Utah. I wanted to reach the nurses that are in the police departments that are not necessarily part of this particular instance. Just to get the education out there, just to my fellow cohort within this state. I did not anticipate this going as large as it has, but I am grateful that is has, because clearly this is an issue that is bigger than just me. And it needs to be discussed.”
Discussed? Discussed? Really? It needs to be “discussed”?
When asked if Detective Payne should be on the street her reply:
“That’s not my decision to answer. I’m not his boss. I need the police chief and his co-workers to make that decision, and that’s their decision.”
The interviewer then asks if she would support the department’s decision.
“I don’t have a choice. I would like to see the right thing done.”
The interviewer asks then:
“Is that right thing then to discipline him?”
Wubbles: “Again, that’s not necessarily up to me. I don’t expect a police officer to come into my place of business until and tell my boss how I should be treated. I do expect that the police participate in civil discourse. I expect that they are respectful of me and that they are respectful of all of my fellow citizens and particularly healthcare workers. And if that’s part of their duty and they don’t uphold that, then there does to be consequences, but that again is not up to me. This police chief need to do what he needs to do and take control of his department and am not in any way trying to interfere in that position.”
When asked if she was calling for his resignation:
“I’m not calling for anything. I’m trying to my job and I’m trying to participate in civil discourse and re-educate and try and promote, you know, proper discourse.”
When questioned about her position on filing suit:
“The lawsuit again has never been off the table. Nothing’s off the table. Nothing’s been decided on anything. Again, I wanted to give everyone in this instance the benefit of the doubt, which was given to me in the instance. Correct? I’m trying to afford them what they did not afford me and I’m trying to give everyone the opportunity to do the right thing. And I think when people do the right thing, you know what’s right in your soul. I know what I did was right. People always know what they’re doing is right or wrong and I will give them that opportunity. And if we feel we are making progress forward, then we’ll continue to press and if not then we’ll in other ways.”
Honestly, the response she has to this event and her way of dealing with it reminds me of Stockholm Syndrome. This isn’t some intra-departmental professional slight to be handled by superiors. If they are apt to treat a professional healthcare provider on duty, who they truly knew was upholding the law, then how exactly do you think they will behave with Joe Sixpack, Suzie Homemaker, Abu who runs the Quickie Mart and Tyrone who just happens to be driving while black? I can guarantee, they’re not going to give them the level of professional courtesy and discourse you received prior to blowing their stacks when they didn’t get their way.
Likely one thing also at play here is that nursing has always very much aligned itself with other public service institutions such as police, firefighters, EMT’s and paramedics. They view themselves as being part of the same band, just different tribes. Nursing and medicine have much the same fraternal expectations as the police’s, “Blue Line”. You don’t rat on your buddies. You are expected never to criticize nor implicate those within your perceived caste system; that which gives you the magical power of authority. Nurses too carry quite a great deal of authority within their own institutions.
Yes she is right, most of the time people know what they’re doing is wrong when they are doing it. However, doing wrong in many, many of our public institutions, in business even in our daily life has become habit. Some of it from expectation of the job, some from peer pressure but it’s been institutionalized to the point that for the most part it is just accepted. Those are some excuses for bad behavior, its institutionalization, but there’s some of it that is just flat out willful. There are certain people who enjoy positions of authority because it give then the ability to bully and lord over people. When it becomes institutionalized, then bullies have entire playgrounds of hapless victims to torture.
Do I think that these officers were aware that coercing a nurse and hospital to give up blood a sample without warrant, while admitting on tape, lack of probable cause as reason why they did not have, nor were intending to even request a warrant for, was wrong? Absolutely. If that’s true, how do police officers get to the point where they honestly believe that they have protection enough to even attempt such an act? It’s because they have reasonable guarantee that their actions will carry no consequence. This is because for decades and decades, the police have protected those who are guilty of such acts from having to pay the consequences of their actions. This is not a situation which requires “discourse” and “re-education”. This behavior demands the very same consequence that any private person would be subject to. It is the only real deterrent to repeat offenses. Finger wagging and wrist slapping have no effect on such things.
Alex Wubbels is likely a very nice woman. She’s probably a very good nurse. However she’s incredibly naive as to how the system works. It’s disheartening to hear her say that it’s not her place to make any determination as to what sort of discipline an officer or even officers as it were, should be disciplined. It’s up to their “boss”? This wasn’t some name calling infraction. This was a criminal assault, carried out by an officer of the law, who wasn’t able to illegally obtain something that he wanted. This isn’t an incidence of a rude waitress who needs a dressing down by the front of the house manager. This is what laws are actually written for, to protect people from physical assault and to protect their personal property (person). If any one of us, we unimportant individuals out here in the world, had tried to illegally take something, attempted to violate someone’s privacy and assaulted someone; we would all be criminally charged. Not only charged but likely be sentenced, possibly involving jail time, fines and probation afterward.
The law does not grant special privileges to law enforcement that no one else has. Laws, nor force of law are justification for injustice either. Laws can frequently be completely immoral and cruel. Laws should’t dictate our moral compass either, because they’re frequently amoral. We have been subject to laws in the past which were completely amoral, such as it being legal to own slaves, illegal to drink beer, legal to have your wife sterilized against her will or throwing granny in jail for growing a plant in her back yard which helps her arthritis.
In the words of historian,economist and philosopher, Dr. Robert Higgs,
“If the cops are drawing people’s blood and sticking their hands up people’s vaginas and anuses in the course of enforcing the law, they are ipso facto demonstrating that the cops, the laws, and the people who enact the enabling legislation are all royally fucked up. Is there nothing that will cause the American people to say, “We will not put up with such shit”?
This is one of those rare chances to get a lot of people to stand up together and say that in unison, and start reeling this screwed up world back to something a bit more sane and with a whole lot more respect for people. We should have far less tolerance for pushy authoritarians who use the cover of law as protection and excuse for horrid behavior.
Wubbels should not wait for the wheels of justice to turn and expect the right thing to occur. If not for her status, multiple videos of the event and social media, none of this would be occurring right now. Thirty years ago, this would have ended up a non-event. It would have just been chocked up to one absolutely horrible, humiliating assault on the job, she never would have forgotten. The police back then probably wouldn’t have even bothered with the show of removing the officer from the blood draw team. It would have been laughed off at the bar over beers that evening. Today even a civil suit likely would have been difficult to win without all of the media coverage and public outrage. We see plenty of outrageous police behavior that never ever ends up leading to criminal charges in this country and others.
Even if the District Attorney does bring criminal charges against one or both the officers involved, I believe that it still warrants a civil suit. Not necessarily for punitive damages she might be granted either. Likely Alex Wubbels isn’t the kind of person who would want monetary compensation. That doesn’t have to be point of it. She could offer any judgement received to charity if she felt uncomfortable about taking money personally as compensation. The reason would be to send an extra added message to those who would abuse their positions of authority, that they no longer have cart blanche to do it anymore. It will require more than just this incident prosecuted to its fullest extent to ever achieve real behavioral changes. It however has to have some sort of real catalyst to get the public to stop ignoring what has been endemic in the system for decades, so that some day it truly might end, because it is no longer tolerated.
September 3, 2017
This video was sent to me by a friend and it is outstanding.
Registered nurse and We Do The Work host Cliff Willmeng responds to the assault and unlawful detainment of Utah RN Alex Wibbles by Officer Jeff Payne.
Cliff brings out even more concerns which were not addressed in my op-ed, while echoing a few of the points I tried to make.
I highly recommend this 8 minutes of commentary, shot during his lunch break from the floor.
September 5, 2017
The more information that comes available about this case, the more disgusting it becomes.
I had read some accounts online without quotation, that Wubbels had contacted no less than 10 people in various departments and positions during the incident. That would seem almost within reason, considering how serious this was. The nursing supervisors would have been called, security would have been called and whomever the watch commander was should have been notified. I would imagine that she was in contact with whomever was in charge of the E.R. at the time and likely even the ICU charge nurse. I can only speculate that the ER attending physician may not have gotten involved for the fact that so many hospitals do not even run their own emergency departments. However, having moved this to the ER, the doctor on duty should have had an ethical duty to do so, if not a contractual one. Hospitals frequently contract out their ER’s to reduce liability and I really don’t now what the situation there is. I do find it odd that none involved themselves in this incident though.
We do know that the arresting officer was moved off the Burn Unit and to the E.R. area, in an attempt to deescalate the situation. Obviously the nurse needed additional staff/management to dissuade the officer from continuing to pursue obtaining an illegal sample. It’s pretty obvious from the video available that the only one at the front line, even after an hour, was still one lonely little charge nurse, with a few underlings chiming in. Management was still a disembodied voice on the telephone even after an hour’s time. This fact is recounted here in the CNN article below, how much time had actually transpired prior to the video footage. That’s a long time for no one with any real administrative authority to show up. Administration should have at the very least, asked the detective to wait until senior management arrived to address the situation. At this point, it would have made very little difference in what quality of sample could be obtained from the patient, seeing as how there were samples in the lab and really if you want to get serious about samples, there would have been samples available at the original hospital he went to prior to being transported via medivac to the Burn Unit and University Hospital. Those samples would not have been chock full of narcotic drugs and paralytics that he would have currently been on while in his induced coma. There simply was no need for all of this drama.
Then to add insult to injury, the hospital held a press conference on Friday to once again exonerate themselves, but their head of security admitted that even he had never seen the body cam footage until Thursday of last week, more than a full month after the incident. He found it to be “shocking”.
My question is why were not the hospital security camera tapes of the incident from beginning to end not reviewed by both Security staff and Hospital management prior to police video being made public? Don’t you think that you would want to do this on your own and even have your legal council involved in reviewing it just to cover all the bases and make sure your doesn’t have any liability in this case?
The entire thing is not only sloppy, but it shows total disregard for their employee.
I’ve also read several unsubstantiated reports that nurse Wubbles was possibly injured by the officer when he assaulted and cuffed her, resulting in a torn rotator cuff.
It is really beyond me at this point why both civil suits against the officers involved, the depart and the hospital have not been filed.
The University of Utah Hospital’s press conference can be seen in this article. It is cringeworthy listening to hospital administration pat themselves on the back for all of the non-existent management support they claim to have given their nurse, and then the surprise of the security administrator who now seems to be all upset about this now that it’s been made public.
September 5, 2017
Detective Jeffrey Payne, fired from Gold Cross Ambulance Service
“Although Jeff was not working for Gold Cross Ambulance at the time of the incident, we take his inappropriate remarks regarding patient transports seriously,” the company said in a statement. “We acknowledge those concerned individuals who have contacted us regarding this incident and affirm our commitment to serving all members of the community with kindness and respect. We will continue to maintain our values of outstanding patient focused care, safety and the complete trust of the communities we serve.”