Working with Law Enforcement

Several weeks ago news outlets aired video of a Salt Lake City police detective roughing up a nurse in the University of Utah Hospital’s burn unit. Detective Jeff Payne demanded access to a patient so that he could draw a blood sample. He had no warrant. The unconscious patient was not under arrest and had not given consent.

The video shows that the nurse, Alex Wubbels, remained calm and professional as she patiently talked through the hospital’s policies. Ms. Wubbels contacted her supervisor by speaker phone, and the supervisor confirmed that Detective Payne could not draw blood without a warrant. Frustrated by the nurse’s refusal, Det. Payne angrily grabbed Ms. Wubbels, shoved her out the door, handcuffed her and pushed her into a police car. He and another officer claimed that she was impeding an investigation. She was later released.

In fact, both officers were wrong and knew it. Constitutional law, supported by U.S. Supreme Court cases, bars illegal search and seizure. Manhandling Ms. Wubbels out of the unit and arresting her for allegedly interfering with a police investigation was assault and battery, and several other charges may have been filed. Subsequent internal affairs investigation reports were scathing in their review of the officers’ conduct while the hospital has since implemented a policy barring law enforcement officers (LEO) from patient care units except under specific circumstances.

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The ensuing national uproar over the video and the officers’ actions have highlighted the at-times difficult balancing act between patient care, patient rights and law enforcement needs.

Consider some of the areas where health care and law enforcement interact:

  • Identification and investigation of crimes such as assault, rape, murder, driving under the influence and others

  • Identifying and reporting suspected abuse, domestic violence and sex trafficking

  • Identifying and helping the mentally ill and the homeless

  • Dealing with public health issues such as communicable diseases, syringe exchanges and lethal weapon violence

  • Caring for patients under arrest or prisoners from local jails or prisons

  • Law enforcement assistance when health care workers are assaulted – and nurses have the highest rate of work place violence of any job sector

  • Caring for LEO injured in the line of duty

Nurses and emergency responders (EMTs and paramedics) are more likely to interact with LEO than other health care workers; and while the two generally cooperate, there are times when the priorities of health care and law enforcement conflict.

Nurses have a professional, ethical and legal responsibility to ensure the care and safety of their patients. They also have an obligation to report crimes and suspicious circumstances, cooperating with LEO within the bounds of state and federal laws and professional practice.

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LEO must comply with the law like everyone else – just because they want or need something (a patient’s clothing, access to interview a patient, or a blood sample, for example) does not mean they are automatically entitled to it. LEO are educated about legal rights and proper procedures but when police needs run up against health care policies and procedures, both sides can feel like the other is intentionally interfering with professional duties and situations can spiral out of control, as they did in Utah.

Here are several lessons to take from Ms. Wubbels’ experience:

  1. Review your facility policies and procedures. Know where they are and what to do if problems arise.

  2. Look at what types of interactions with LEO are most common at your facility or in your practice. Make sure you have a defined procedure to deal with potential situations.

  3. Evaluate past interactions with LEO. How have those situations worked? Are there things that need review or improvement? What and how?

  4. If something happens, remain calm. Listen carefully to what the LEO is saying or asking for. Do not argue, but do restate what you hear: “I want to make sure I understand you. I heard you say ‘….’ Is that correct?”

  5. Be clear that you are not blocking the LEO in his or her duties. “I am happy to cooperate with you. Please understand that I too have legal and professional duties to my patients and that I must follow procedures. If you were my patient, I’m sure that’s what you would want. Let’s see what we have to do in this situation.”

  6. If problems arise, go up the chain of command and, if the situation warrants it, ask that the facility’s attorney give an opinion. Be sure the LEO’s superiors understand the situation too and ensure that everyone is kept informed. Document.

  7. Encourage your facility or department to reach out to local law enforcement and let them know what your policies and procedures are. Get an understanding of what they need, when and why. Help them understand your perspective as well. Emergency rooms in particular are good candidates to do this.

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Nurses and LEO are dedicated professionals focused on doing what’s right for those they protect and serve. Each has a stressful work environment that can go from calm – even boring – to unpredictable and a matter of life and death in seconds. Each profession needs the other at times. Patience and clear communication can help to ensure that each can perform their respective duties with mutual respect and solid working relationships.

BJ Strickland

Beth J. (“BJ”) Strickland is from Tennessee. She is an RN with Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in nursing and a Master’s degree in history from Vanderbilt University. She is also a licensed attorney with her Juris Doctor degree from the University of Tennessee. She has practiced nursing since 1976 and has experience in clinical nursing, administration and teaching in several clinical areas. She has practiced law in state and federal courts in Tennessee since 1996 with an interest in healthcare risk management, employment law and medical malpractice. She retired from the U.S. Army in 2015 as a Lieutenant Colonel. This article is not legal advice. It is offered only as information about nursing topics of interest. If you have legal questions, please speak with a licensed attorney in your area. Neither the author or the website publisher are responsible for any actions a reader may take based on material in this article or on this website.

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