A Utah police officer has been fired for manhandling and arresting a nurse earlier this year because she wouldn’t let him break the law.
The chain of events was caught on body camera video at the University of Utah Hospital. After consulting with hospital staff, nurse Alex Wubbels tells Salt Lake City detective Jeff Payne that he is not allowed legally or under hospital policy to draw blood from an unconscious patient, because — by Payne’s own admission — he didn’t have a warrant (or probable cause) or consent, and the patient wasn’t under arrest.
Payne then gets angry, grabbing Wubbels, dragging her out of the hospital, and arresting her. She sobs and screams, “Help! Help! Somebody help me! Stop! Stop! I did nothing wrong!”
Payne was trying to get blood from a trucker who had crashed into a suspect fleeing from the Utah Highway Patrol, reportedly to see if the trucker had drugs or alcohol in his system. According to the Washington Post, the goal of the test was to exonerate the truck driver, who is a reserve officer at the Rigby, Idaho, Police Department.
Police cited “exigent circumstances and implied consent law” to justify the warrantless blood test, but that hasn’t been legally justified in Utah since 2007. The US Supreme Court also ruled in 2016 that the Constitution requires a warrant or consent for blood tests — meaning that Payne’s expedition was in violation of constitutional law, not just hospital policy.
The police department conducted an internal investigation into the incident, opting to fire Payne.
“I have lost faith and confidence in your ability to continue to serve as a member of the Salt Lake City Police Department,” Salt Lake Police Chief Mike Brown wrote in a letter to Payne obtained by 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.”
Another cop, James Tracy, was demoted from lieutenant to police officer over the incident.
Payne and Tracy will likely appeal the decisions, according to their attorneys. “We expected major discipline. We’re just disappointed it was the ultimate discipline,” Greg Skordas, Payne’s attorney, said.
Salt Lake City Council Chairman Stan Penfold, meanwhile, told the Deseret News that the city now has to consider how to change policy to prevent this kind of thing from happening again: “The hiring and firing of staff is really an administrative function, but I think we need to look at what happened, how we can prevent this, what policies need to be updated, modified, changed so that going forward residents can count on a safe interaction from our police department.”
Wubbels is still considering whether to pursue a civil lawsuit, with meetings scheduled over the next few weeks with city officials to decide where she goes from here.
The video is another example of police acting excessively. Over the past few years, videos have surfaced of cops shooting and killing fleeing, unarmed suspects, planting evidence, and even declaring that “we only shoot black people.” All of these incidents have contributed to more scrutiny and further distrust in law enforcement, which, in turn, make it more difficult for cops to do their jobs.
When police act above the law, they only make the law harder to enforce
There’s a longstanding criminological concept at play: “legal cynicism.” The idea is that the government will have a much harder time enforcing the law when large segments of the population don’t trust the government, the police, or the laws.
This is a major explanation for why predominantly minority communities tend to have more crime than other communities: After centuries of neglect and abuse, black and brown Americans are simply much less likely to turn to police for help — and that may lead a small but significant segment of these communities to resort to its own means, including violence, to solve interpersonal conflicts.
There’s research to back this up. A 2016 study, from sociologists Matthew Desmond of Harvard, Andrew Papachristos of Yale, and David Kirk of Oxford, looked at 911 calls in Milwaukee after incidents of police brutality hit the news.
They found that after the 2004 police beating of Frank Jude, 17 percent (22,200) fewer 911 calls were made in the following year compared with the number of calls that would have been made had the Jude beating never happened. More than half of the effect came from fewer calls in black neighborhoods. And the effect persisted for more than a year, even after the officers involved in the beating were punished. Researchers found similar impacts on local 911 calls after other high-profile incidents of police violence.
But crime still happened in these neighborhoods. As 911 calls dropped, researchers also found a rise in homicides. They noted that “the spring and summer that followed Jude’s story were the deadliest in the seven years observed in our study.”
That suggests that people were simply dealing with crime themselves. And although the researchers couldn’t definitively prove it, that might mean civilians took to their own — sometimes violent — means to protect themselves when they couldn’t trust police to stop crime and violence.
“An important implication of this finding is that publicized cases of police violence not only threaten the legitimacy and reputation of law enforcement,” the researchers write, but “they also — by driving down 911 calls — thwart the suppression of law breaking, obstruct the application of justice, and ultimately make cities as a whole, and the black community in particular, less safe.”
This concept is one reason the Obama administration put an emphasis on pulling back the police’s use of military weapons. By looking like an occupying force, cops can worsen relations with their community — leading to distrust, which potentially leads to more crime and violence.
That’s why, especially in the context of racial disparities in police use of force, experts say it’s important that police own up to their mistakes and take transparent steps to fix them.
“This is what folks who rail against the focus on police violence — and pull up against that, community violence — get wrong,” David Kennedy, a criminologist at John Jay College, told me last year. “What those folks simply don’t understand is that when communities don’t trust the police and are afraid of the police, then they will not and cannot work with police and within the law around issues in their own community. And then those issues within the community become issues the community needs to deal with on their own — and that leads to violence.”
Behavior like Payne’s only contributes to this kind of distrust — and that, in turn, may make it harder for other police officers to fulfill their basic duty.
For more on American policing’s problems and how to fix them, read Vox’s explainer.