The Many Compliance Lessons From Utah Arrest

A story out of Salt Lake City this weekend was a powerful reminder of the perils of modern compliance training, policy management, and monitoring. Compliance officers may want to take note, because the tale of Alex Wubbels is bound to happen again somewhere else.

Wubbels is a nurse in the burn unit of University of Utah Hospital. On July 26 she was taken into custody by two Salt Lake City police officers because she refused to draw blood from one of her patients— a truck driver involved in a crash with another driver who had been fleeing police. The officers wanted a blood sample as part of their investigation.

Wubbels cited hospital policy to the officer, Det. Jeff Payne. The driver was neither a suspect in the crash nor under arrest; he was unconscious and therefore unable to give consent; Payne did not have a warrant to compel the blood sample. Therefore, Wubbels said, no blood would be drawn.

Payne couldn’t care less about hospital policy, nor about Utah state law and court rulings, which favor of Wubbels and the hospital. He told Wubbels and numerous other hospital executives, “I’m doing what I’m being told by my boss, and I’m going to do what my boss says.” Then Payne threatened Wubbels with arrest (“She’s going to jail”), and when she still refused, he hauled her off the burn ward in handcuffs and kept her in the back of a squad car for 20 minutes.

We know all this because— wait for it— the police were wearing body cameras. We have a complete, incontrovertible record of the entire exchange. Watch for yourself, if you haven’t already.

That video became public on Aug. 31, and flew across the Internet after that. Payne and another officer were placed on (paid) leave pending an investigation. University of Utah Hospitals formally apologized to Wubbels yesterday, and stressed that Wubbels “was nothing less than exemplary” in her behavior. The hospital also promised stronger policies about hospital staff interacting with law enforcement. Now the university’s public safety department is under fire, since several university police officers stood by rather than come to Wubbels’ defense.

Needless to say, Wubbels is considering litigation. Also needless to say, the Salt Lake City police, the University of Utah, and, ultimately, Utah taxpayers will pay Wubbels a pile of money to avoid that.

Compliance Training Gone Good

We should admire Wubbels immensely for how she handled herself in the face of Payne’s intransigence. She showed him the hospital policy. She enlisted supervisors for help. She remained calm. Her behavior was excellent all around.

Still, let’s remember something else: Wubbels had no choice. If she had drawn the truck driver’s blood, she’d be complicit in a HIPAA privacy violation and put her nursing license at risk. So despite Payne’s threats, she stood her ground and followed hospital policy. I don’t know how much of that was training from the university and how much was Wubbels’ impressive character, but she was a credit to the organization.

What’s more, so was everyone else at the hospital. Coworkers and supervisors rallied to defend Wubbels and told Payne he was wrong. No, they didn’t intercede to prevent him from hauling her off— but painful as it was to watch, standing aside was the correct step. A brawl would do nobody any favors.

The compliance team at the hospital should be proud of the staff. In a difficult situation, they knew which policy applied and what that policy told them to do; and to the best of their ability, they tried to do it.

Everything Else Gone Bad

The Salt Lake City police department, in contrast, apparently it did a terrible job of training Payne and fellow officers. Their understanding of state and constitutional law regarding blood samples was wrong. Their behavior was awful. And they left the department, and all police everywhere, with a gigantic reputation black eye.

As recently as 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that police cannot draw blood from unconscious people without a warrant. Payne mentioned implied consent in the bodycam video, but Utah state law only allows implied consent when police suspect that a motorist is driving while impaired. The unconscious truck driver is a reserve police officer in Idaho, and Payne said he wanted the blood to prove the driver was not impaired.

Payne should have known he was wrong, and stopped hounding Wubbels. Either he didn’t know, or he didn’t care. Neither answer helps him.

I know we’re splitting hairs about implied consent law in this case, when most compliance officers will never encounter that scenario. Instead, you’ll have your own scenario, which will seem like splitting hairs to the rest of us. The important lesson here— the crucial, immense lesson; that will only become more urgent in the future— is that your employee training on policy must be rock-solid, because surveillance magnifies everything.

compliance trainingThe linchpin to this whole mess is the bodycam. It provided a complete, incontrovertible record of the entire saga: a moment-by-moment account of actions taken, yes; but also the emotion of the moments. You can hear Payne losing his temper. You can see Wubbels’ bewilderment at being arrested for doing her job. No wonder half the Internet was enraged at Payne within a matter of hours.

Surveillance magnifies everything. It gives objective viewers the facts of a situation and emotional indignation at the same time. That’s a tremendously powerful force, and compliance officers should be unnerved that it can flit around the human psyche so easily. It doesn’t necessarily subvert due process and impartial investigations— but surveillance can accelerate investigations, to a pace that feels like arbitrary justice.

To be clear, I’m not defending Payne. I watched that video, and by the end I wanted him fired. But that’s exactly my point: surveillance whips facts and emotions into a cocktail of righteousness, the implications of which we don’t yet fully understand. And while we’ve barely begun to plumb those questions, surveillance proliferates all the more, in everything we do.

Consider that the next time you look at your laptop webcam.

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