Adam Fondren, Deseret News
A month after a Salt Lake City police officer was caught on video forcibly arresting a hospital nurse during a fit of pique over a blood draw, the city’s police chief promised the department would learn from its mistakes. There are certainly many mistakes to learn from, not the least of which is how the city failed to adequately and openly address the incident before it exploded into a controversy that even the least media-savvy observer could guess would follow release of the video.
But long before the unwarranted arrest of University of Utah Hospital nurse Alex Wubbels, the department has had an awkward and inconsistent policy on how to deal with public disclosure of body-cam video, particularly in cases in which the video may not be flattering to the department. Police Chief Mike Brown said when he first saw the video of the nurse’s arrest, he was “alarmed.” While the chief said he did not see it until it had already begun its viral path to media ubiquity, members of the department’s command staff had watched it beforehand.
A question that needs to be asked is why didn’t these leaders recognize and suspend the officer while the incident was investigated? Why didn’t they recognize the hurt the video would do to the public trust? Anyone who believed the video would not see the light of public inspection, especially after it was released to the nurse and her lawyer, is naïve.
But this isn’t just about a lack of a public strategy, it’s about prudent judgment in the management ranks of a department that has pledged to be accountable to the public it serves. The actions of the police department open the door – rightly or wrongly – for damning public judgment that suggests it is more interested in protecting officers and the department than in building trust and protecting the public.
Body cameras are in use because all parties have agreed with the need to monitor the activities of those who wield the powers granted to officers of the law. Video recorded on the cameras serve to protect both officers and the public from accusation. In the vast majority of cases, it shows officers acting appropriately, behaving with civility and dutifully discharging their responsibilities. When a camera catches an officer acting outside the bounds of professional behavior, immediate transparency is the best course.
Had the department issued statements and taken appropriate steps shortly after the incident occurred about the administrative actions taken against the officer in question, and made the video available to the public, it may not have quashed the ensuing outrage, but it would have shown strong leadership and assured the public that Salt Lake Police will not tolerate such behavior. Trust is maintained.
Chief Brown is correct in seeing the case of the arrested nurse as a learning experience. Body cameras don’t offer a perfect truth. But they offer a transparent starting point for public accountability. Going forward a consistent policy of video release is needed to engender public confidence.