Medicine and law enforcement can be a combustible combination, as a widely publicized incident in a Utah emergency room has reminded. The ugly incident has underscored the importance of hospitals keeping big, upset guys with guns cordoned off from caregivers, as well as the importance of front-line medical personnel knowing, respecting, and protecting patients’ privacy rights about their medical treatment.
Nurse Alex Wubbels became a heroine for firmly and politely telling Salt Lake detectives that the law forbade them from ordering blood extraction and testing on patient William Gray. The unconscious truck driver turned out to be a reserve cop in a nearby small town, and he had been involved in a crash connected to a high-speed chase by Salt Lake officers.
Nurse Wubbels, backed up by her supervisor, declined the detectives’ repeated demands—curiously supported by their supervisor—for blood testing on Gray. With paramedics on scene protesting and trying to help along with other hospital staff doing the same, the officers then grabbed Wubbels, arrested her, and put her in a cop cruiser for a half hour or so before hospital lawyers and other more sensible police officials intervened. Fortunately for the nurse, as happens in ugly scenes like this one, there not only was ample cell phone video taken but also the officers wore body cams.
The cops involved in this mess have been suspended and are under investigation. The mayor and police chief have apologized to the nurse, who has been exonerated of any legal charge. The Utah hospital, part of the state’s major university medical system, has put in place new policies to encourage positive, necessary cooperation with law enforcement while barring officers from direct contact with front-line medical staff, especially while they are providing emergency medical services.
My firm deals often with drivers harmed in auto, truck, and motorcycle crashes, and it’s unsettling that police everywhere don’t know, through and through, that they can’t get blood tests of non-consenting motorists without a court order. It’s disturbing, too, that it took far too long for officials to respond to details of this matter, which have dribbled out far too slowly, even with plenty of investigative materials available and huge health policy questions prevailing.
There have been calls for federal investigations of the Salt Lake police—probing, for example, why officers as high ranking as a lieutenant on the force pushed for the improper blood test. (News reports suggest officers may have known and worried that their high-speed chase wasn’t a great idea, and they may have hoped to find issues with truck driver Gray, who seemingly was an innocent party but was injured in the incident.) This is a good idea and federal officials should get involved.
Hospitals nationwide also should be examining their policies and practices in light on this July debacle. To be sure, many police conduct themselves professionally and responsibly in extraordinarily tough circumstance, including when their suspects end up needing medical services. Hospitals also have become anxious, risky environments, where violence sadly is becoming more common, and nurses all too often are victims. But there’s a fine line, and already stressful medical care facilities shouldn’t be places where big, anxious guys are encouraged to wield force and guns.