By Matt Stroud, Criminal Justice Researcher, ACLU of Pennsylvania
A registered nurse, Alex Wubbels exposed police brutality in a Salt Lake City hospital this week by releasing barbaric body camera footage to the public. If she’d been in Pennsylvania, she likely would have been stymied from even obtaining the footage.
At the University of Utah Hospital’s burn unit, where Wubbels served as head nurse, a police officer arrived the evening of July 26 asking for a blood test from an unconscious crash victim. That victim had been admitted in a coma and had not been identified as a suspect in the wreck. There was no warrant for such a test, and there was no family around, so the comatose patient could not consent. So Wubbels told Salt Lake City detective Jeff Payne, “I’m sorry” — there will be no blood test without a warrant.
What happened next was captured on a body camera. Wubbels called her supervisor, who agreed with her decision. Then chaos: Payne rushed over to Wubbels, who backed away. He yelled, “Oh, please. We’re done here. We’re done. We’re done.” Wubbels screamed and Payne shoved her outside and in the direction of a police cruiser. “I’ve done nothing wrong! I’ve done nothing wrong!” she screamed. “Why is this happening? This is crazy!” Then Payne handcuffed and arrested her.
Wubbels was not charged, but the video — released to her despite an ongoing investigation — has created not only a national backlash against the detective, but also waves of support for Wubbels. She stood her ground — as she should have — and now registered nurses around the country know that they can, too, if they’re put into a similar circumstance. What’s more, the detective who perpetuated this injustice will now have to answer for his actions (he’s currently on administrative leave while an investigation unfolds), and the community at large can participate in a broader discussion about what constitutes overreach by law enforcement in a hospital environment.
Those are all good outcomes — all of which resulted because of rules in Utah and Salt Lake City that allowed Wubbels to obtain and release body camera footage.
Wubbels’ situation wasn’t unique this week either. In Las Vegas, Michael Bennett of the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks posted on Twitter that a police officer aimed a gun at him and threatened to “blow [his] fucking head off” for seemingly no reason other than, as he put it, “being a black man in the wrong place at the wrong time.” Bennett’s nightmare in Las Vegas was caught on a body camera and released because Las Vegas has a policy to release as much footage and information as possible from use of force incidents.
Which brings us to Pennsylvania. This week, Pennsylvania’s new body camera law, Act 22, took effect. We’ve been railing against proposals like this law, and eventually this specific law, for nearly a year now. Today’s no different.
One of the main problems we have with the law is that it exempts police camera footage from the state’s open records law, but our opposition goes further than that: Act 22 has no presumption of accessibility for a person in the video. If footage is investigatory, evidence, or could potentially be considered evidence, an agency can deny its release. If Wubbels had been a nurse in Pennsylvania, and her exact circumstance would have occurred, she would have likely been forced to subpoena this footage as part of a legal action. Same goes for Bennett. If he would have been arrested in Pittsburgh, for example, it would have been merely his words describing what he went through, rather than his words and video evidence documenting what had occurred.
As we have argued before, there are very good reasons for officers to wear body cameras. But laws like Act 22 only take into consideration the needs of police — not the needs of the public.
If you need an explanation of why that’s a problem, look no further than Wubbels and Bennett. Their ordeals would have likely been concealed in Pennsylvania.
IN OTHER NEWS
(Criminal justice news deserving of an in-depth look.)
“If he’s so qualified, why does he look so desperate?” Via The New Yorker.
- The New Yorker: “The Trials of a Muslim Cop”
“Luna Droubi, a lawyer who filed a class-action complaint last year on behalf of officers who have beards for religious reasons and have been penalized for growing them, told me that there was a ‘massive influx of Muslim officers who joined the N.Y.P.D. to help fight a branch of their religion that they disagreed with. But they’ve lost the energy to fight the battle, because they have to fight the battle of being Muslim on a day-to-day basis in their own work.’ Masood Syed, the officer who initiated the lawsuit, told me that he often gets ‘this disgusted look’ from his supervisors and colleagues because he has a beard. They seem to be asking, ‘Why can’t you assimilate? Assimilate or quit,’ he said. (He was dismayed recently when he saw a red ‘Make America Great Again’ hat in a display case at a police-training facility in the Bronx.) A Muslim detective who has been on the force for more than ten years told me that when he talks to his wife on the phone in Arabic other officers look at him as if he were communicating in some sort of dangerous code. ‘I request that Muslim cops be treated like everybody else,’ he said. ‘If we had any intention of being terrorists, we would never have joined the N.Y.P.D.
- Philly.com: “Pennsylvania let 70 teen killers out of prison in the last year. Here’s what happened.”
“In the last year, 70 men and women — all locked away as teens — have quietly returned to the community after decades behind bars. They’re landing their first jobs, as grocery store cashiers and line cooks, addiction counselors and paralegals. They are, in their 50s and 60s, learning to drive, renting their first apartments, trying to establish credit, and navigating unfamiliar relationships. They’re encountering the mismatch between long-held daydreams and the hard realities of daily life. These are the first of 517 juvenile lifers in Pennsylvania, the largest such contingent in the nation, to be resentenced and released on parole since the Supreme Court decided that mandatory life-without-parole sentences for minors are unconstitutional. Many feel they’ve been granted both an extraordinary privilege and a grave responsibility: to demonstrate that it is, in fact, safe to release many of Pennsylvania’s more than 5,000 lifers. So far, not one of the 70 has violated parole.”
- Post-Gazette: “When is a question illegal? Bethlehem police say questioner broke law at Pat Toomey town hall”
“Both the station and Mr. Toomey’s office said the decision to press charges was being made by the Bethlehem police. Police Chief Mark DiLuzio did not return phone or email messages for comment Tuesday: Charges had not been formally filed against Mr. Radecki as of late Tuesday afternoon, according to a check of the court docket. Still, Mr. Walczak said the charges seemed problematic. State law defines disrupting a public meeting as acting out ‘with intent to prevent or disrupt a lawful meeting, procession, or gathering.’ ‘That wouldn’t apply at all’ in this case, said Mr. Walczak. ‘You aren’t going to show that intent, and the disruption stemmed not from his question but the response to it.’ Should Mr. Radecki need legal aid, he said, ‘We’d love to talk to him.’”
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