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Salt Lake City Police via AP

Chief fires officer who arrested U. nurse; lieutenant demoted

By Pat Reavy, KSL  |  Posted Oct 10th, 2017 @ 10:32pm


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SALT LAKE CITY — Salt Lake Police Chief Mike Brown fired detective Jeff Payne on Tuesday and demoted Lt. James Tracy for their involvement in the controversial arrest of University Hospital nurse Alex Wubbels.

"I have lost faith and confidence in your ability to continue to serve as a member of the Salt Lake City Police Department," Brown wrote to Payne in a scathing letter notifying him of his termination.

"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," the chief wrote.

KSL obtained the chief's letters to Payne and Tracy through a public records request.

Both officers had been under intense public scrutiny since body camera footage of Wubbels' July 26 arrest was made public by Wubbels and her attorney. Payne was sent to University Hospital to collect blood from a man injured in a fatal crash. But the charge nurse — citing policy agreed upon by the hospital and the police department — declined to tell Payne where the patient was or allow him to draw blood.

The detective, with direction from his supervisor that day, Tracy, ultimately arrested the screaming nurse after physically pushing her out of the emergency room and holding her against a wall while handcuffing her. Police body camera video of the incident caused outcries of protest from across the country and prompted Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski and Brown to personally apologize to Wubbels for the way she was treated while doing her job.

On Tuesday, Wubbels said she was thankful for the interest in her story worldwide, and for the body camera video.

"More than anything, I think I owe it to the body camera footage to really tell the story of what happened. Without that, my story never would have had the impact that it had,” she said.

Reasons for dismissal

In his letter to Tracy, Brown called him the "catalyst that led to the arrest." He was demoted two ranks from lieutenant to the rank of police officer.

But it was Payne who withheld information from Tracy, according to Brown's letter, and was the one who tried to use his supervisor as a "shield" to arrest Wubbels. After Payne told Logan police he was having trouble getting the vials of blood requested, Logan authorities told him not to worry about it and that they would get the blood by other means at a later time.

But even after Wubbels explained several times to Payne that she was following orders from top hospital administrators, "you unreasonably and unacceptably chose to make Ms. Wubbels the target of your unwarranted frustration and ire," the chief wrote.

"I am struck and dismayed by the discourtesy, disrespect and lack of consideration you displayed toward Ms. Wubbels," Brown continued in his 17-page letter.

Brown said while he recognized Payne has served the department for 27 years, his service "is outweighed by the glaring absence of sound professional judgment and extremely discourteous, disrespectful, inappropriate, unreasonable and unwarranted behavior you displayed in this incident. Indeed, I am deeply troubled that an officer with 27 years of experience would choose to pursue the course of action and behave in the manner that you did. … For any officer, let alone one with your tenure, this is simply unacceptable."

Brown went on to note that even though Payne appeared to be sorry, "I am unpersuaded that you are remorseful for your actions themselves."

Tracy's demotion

In Tracy's letter, Brown acknowledges that information withheld by Payne may have influenced Tracy's actions that day. But as a watch commander, Brown said Tracy should have shown better leadership and treated Wubbels and the hospital staff better.

"Your lack of judgment and leadership in this matter is unacceptable, and as a result, I no longer believe that you can retain a leadership position in the department," Brown wrote. "I am troubled that an officer with your experience would fail to exercise sound discretion and good judgment in this matter."

Brown said Tracy's decades of service to the department were outweighed by the "complete lack of judgment in this incident."

Furthermore, Brown said Tracy's actions have caused "substantial damage" to the relationship the police department has with local hospitals, nurses and other health care officials that "will take considerable time and resources to rebuild."

The statements made by Payne and Tracy during their Internal Affairs investigations were redacted from Brown's letters. The two now have five days to file an appeal of the decisions if they wish.

Appeals likely

Payne's attorney, Greg Skordas, said he will likely appeal.

"We expected major discipline. We’re just disappointed it was the ultimate discipline,” he said.

Skordas believes Brown was under heavy public pressure to take serious action because of the tremendous attention the case has received.

"Had this incident not received that (type of attention), there’s no way that this conduct, in my opinion, would have merited a termination. And that’s why I’m going to advise Jeff to appeal this,” he said.

Skordas says Payne admits he made a "horrible mistake," but believes the punishment is too harsh.

Ed Brass, Tracy's attorney, said his client will also appeal.

"Lt. Tracy remains a Salt Lake City police officer. Accordingly, we will refrain from any specific remarks outside of the process that might be perceived by others to be insubordinate. We intend to exercise his right to an appeal to the Salt Lake Civil Service Commission. We will address the facts in that forum."

Wubbels' attorney, Karra Porter, said Tuesday that she felt "relief" that Payne was fired. But she also said she didn't believe there was any other acceptable alternative.

"I honestly struggle to understand how detective Payne doesn’t think that his conduct warrants termination. I don’t get it,” she said. "If detective Payne does not believe this is a fireable offense, then I’m glad detective Payne will not be out on the street in uniform tomorrow.”

Porter said she was still evaluating how she felt about Tracy's punishment. As for Wubbels, she said Tuesday that she didn't "feel the emotional capacity to speak" about the letters from the police chief as she still struggles with what happened.

The next step for Wubbels will be deciding whether to file a civil lawsuit. Porter said she and her client will be meeting with city officials as well as University of Utah police over the next couple of weeks. How that dialogue goes will help determine what happens next, she said.

Biskupski said Brown's decision is in line with "the high level of accountability we owe the people of Salt Lake City," and will be upheld.

Salt Lake City Council Chairman Stan Penfold said Tuesday that the city's work isn’t done in the matter.

“The responsibility of the council is to look at (whether) we have policies in place to prevent this from happening in the future. And I think the council has some work to do around that,” he said.

"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."

Contributing: Katie McKellar

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