She was only protecting a patient

September 6, 2017

Elizabeth Lalasz, a Chicago nurse, activist and member of National Nurses United, considers what the illegal arrest and assault of a Salt Lake City nurse should tell us.

"I'VE DONE nothing wrong! I've done nothing wrong!"

You might guess that was one of the many cries of African Americans stopped, assaulted and sometimes killed by police officers--but in this case, those were the words of a Salt Lake City nurse experiencing brutal treatment from law enforcement for simply trying to do her job.

The release of video from a police body camera showing Salt Lake City Detective Jeff Payne assaulting and arresting nurse Alex Wubbels in July has sparked outrage online and in the media.

Wubbels was dragged out of her hospital's emergency room in handcuffs after she refused to allow Payne to illegally obtain a sample of her unconscious patient's blood. The video has caused a national outcry against this one officer's actions--but it also highlights the dangers that nurses often face in the course of doing their jobs and advocating for patients.

The release of the video led to Payne and another officer being placed on administrative leave "pending the results of an investigation." Additionally, it prompted the University of Utah Hospital, where Wubbels works, to ban law enforcement agents from inside patient care areas and require officers to go through supervisors when they have requests, rather than approaching nurses directly.

Nurse Alex Wubbels (center) is put under arrest in Salt Lake City
Nurse Alex Wubbels (center) is put under arrest in Salt Lake City

Importantly, it's also galvanized nursing organizations across the country to denounce the arrest and treatment of Wubbels--and to point out the growing problem of workplace violence against registered nurses and other hospital employees.

THE VIDEO of Wubbels' arrest shows Payne behaving, as police often do, above the law--and seemingly unconcerned about any accountability for his illegal actions.

The incident occurred on July 26, when Wubbels refused to let officers draw blood from an unconscious crash victim who had been admitted to the University of Utah Hospital burn unit in a coma.

The patient wasn't suspected of being at fault in the wreck, which happened when another driver who was being chased by police crossed into traffic and collided head-on with the patient's truck. The suspect who was fleeing from police was killed in the crash.

At the hospital, however, police asked for truck driver's blood to be drawn--leading to speculation that Payne may have been looking to find a reason to shift blame onto the victim of the crash and deflect it away from police.

Wubbels--the charge nurse for the burn unit, meaning her job was to run that area of the hospital for the shift--presented officers with a printout of hospital policy on drawing blood and said their request didn't meet the criteria. Hospital policy specified that before obtaining a blood sample, police needed either a judge's order, the patient's consent, or the patient needed to be under arrest.

A 2016 U.S. Supreme Court ruling upheld this standard, prohibiting blood tests in suspected drunk-driving cases from being obtained without a warrant.

The university and Salt Lake City police actually agreed to the hospital policy more than a year ago, but the officers didn't seem to be aware of this, according to Wubbels' lawyer. And they simply didn't care or were too arrogant to listen when presented with the policy in writing, or with explanations from Wubbels and a hospital supervisor over the phone.

Payne continued to demand Wubbels break the law and hospital policy even after the supervisor confirmed she was right to refuse to allow police to take the sample.

"Sir, you're making a huge mistake because you're threatening a nurse," the supervisor can be heard telling police over the phone. The video then shows Payne attempting to knock the phone out of Wubbels' hand, saying, "Oh, please. We're done here. We're done. We're done."

Payne then grabs Wubbels, shoving her out of the building, before handcuffing and arresting her while Wubbels screams for him to stop. Wubbels was forced to sit, handcuffed, in a police car before eventually being released without being charges.

WUBBELS WENT public with the video at a September 1 press conference in which she described her assault and arrest. Nursing organizations across the country are standing up for Wubbels.

She was, in fact, doing her job for an unconscious patient, adhering to the standard of informed consent--the idea that in order to perform any medical procedure, a patient must understand and agree to it--and upholding the ethical obligation nurses have to advocate for their patients' health and alleviate suffering.

A statement from National Nurses United (NNU) called the incident "outrageous." According to Jean Ross, co-president of the NNU: "The first job of a registered nurse is always to protect and advocate for her patient, period. As the videos and news accounts make clear, there is no excuse for this assault, or her arrest, which sends a chilling message about the safety of nurses and the rights of patients."

It's not only nurses leading the call for the officers involved to face disciplinary action. The Salt Lake Tribune editorial board wrote that Wubbels' arrest raises "serious questions" about the city's police department: "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 brutality that Wubbels experienced--which was only taken seriously by police officials weeks afterward, once they were embarrassed by the video's exposure in the media--also highlights the problem of workplace violence against registered nurses and other hospital employees. That makes it "especially appalling to see police assaulting an RN for properly, and legally, doing her job," said Ross.

Workers in the health care and social assistance industry face extremely high rates of workplace violence. In 2014, 52 percent of all incidents of workplace violence reported to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) occurred against workers in these fields. And these rates have been increasing: Between 2005 and 2014, rates of workplace violence incidents increased 110 percent in private industry hospitals.

Police officers caught in acts of brutality--whether against the ever-growing list of African Americans and immigrants targeted by racist police practices, or workers like Wubbels standing up in the workplace--rarely face punishment for their crimes, however.

In a speech in late July, Donald Trump cheered on cop violence, telling a crowd of officers at Suffolk County Community College to feel free to "be rough" and brutalize suspects when arresting them--as the crowd of uniformed officers laughed, smiled and applauded behind him.

As Trump and other officials give a green light to police violence, we have to take inspiration from Alex Wubbels' courageous stand--and fight back against this kind of brutality, whether it takes place on the streets or in our workplaces.

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