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  • Writer's pictureMario Nicolais

Police officer’s assault on Utah nurse did systematic damage

[Picture: In this July 26, 2017, frame grab from video taken from a police body camera and provided by attorney Karra Porter, nurse Alex Wubbels is arrested by a Salt Lake City police officer at University Hospital in Salt Lake City. The Utah police department is making changes after the officer dragged Wubbels out of the hospital in handcuffs when she refused to allow blood to be drawn from an unconscious patient.]

The violent assault on University of Utah nurse Alex Wubbels shocked people across the country as the video of a police officer’s brutal conduct went viral across social media. Tragically, the greatest damage done during that one incident will be to increase the divide between police and health care providers.

In my day job, I serve as general counsel to a large health care provider. Our staff, including our nurses, work with police on a daily basis. Police interact with our facilities on a broad range of issues. Sometimes our facilities are victims of crime, either in the form of stolen property or fraudulent activity. Sometimes long-term residents with mental health challenges act out in a way that requires a police response. Sometimes officers just stop by to check-in because they know and like our staff.

And sometimes we end up on opposite sides of an issue. The underlying dynamic at work in Utah takes place every day at health care facilities across the country: police investigating a crime and health care providers protecting patients’ privacy and care. In both cases, public servants protecting public interests. When such conflict between interests arises, the court system usually makes the final decision. That was the case here; last year the United States Supreme Court ruled that warrantless blood tests violate the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Of course, Supreme Court rulings don’t usually change decades of ingrained institutional practice overnight. For example, while the famous Brown vs. Board of Education case eviscerated the legal grounds for “separate but equal” treatment of African Americans, the practice continues to challenge our country more than sixty years later. The ruling here isn’t remotely in the same category as Brown, but the fundamental difficulty of implementing a decision is the same, if to a lesser degree.

Police are not immune to resisting such changes, and can sometimes be the most stubbornly entrenched. They have a difficult job and court rulings that make the job even more difficult can be demoralizing and frustrating. That is the normal, human reaction everyone has to new rules impeding their ability to do their job. But it isn’t a justification to ignore the change. And as law enforcement, police officers should be held to a higher standard.

That is where the situation in Utah spun wildly out of control. The on-scene officer — and the lieutenant directing his actions — not only crossed the line, but went sprinting over it. In their fervor to gather evidence, they attempted to trample the constitutional rights of Wubbels’ patient. To their consternation, Wubbels not only knew her patient’s rights, but had the ethical fortitude to resist their unconstitutional and increasingly threatening conduct.

At the beginning of the video I watched, Wubbels is acting in the cool, collected manner I see in nurses all the time. They are not strangers to high stress, urgent situations. She appears to be reading from a scripted notice — probably the hospital’s adopted policy and procedures, and using her cell phone’s speaker function to include another individual in the situation. My best guess listening to the conversation is that Wubbels had the foresight to get the hospital’s legal counsel on the telephone. That is my assumption because I’ve been the lawyer on the other end of the phone in similar circumstances. Thankfully, every officer I’ve ever dealt with acted in a far more professional manner.

When the person on the phone told the officer he was “making a huge mistake,” he should have listened. Or called a district attorney. Or at the very least moderated his conduct. He did none of these and instead opted to forcibly arrest Wubbels. While cooler heads must have prevailed — she was released twenty minutes later — the officers involved should lose their jobs.

Unfortunately, firing the officers likely cannot undo the systematic damage already done. The University of Utah Hospital has already adopted a new policy restricting police from certain areas. It likely won’t be long until other health care providers follow. That’s a tragedy because it drives an unwelcome wedge between public servants who have to work together every day.

Mario Nicolais is an attorney and writes columns on law enforcement, the legal system, and public policy. Follow him on Twitter: @MarioNicolaiEsq

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