The recent video of nurse Alex Wubbels’ encounter with detective Jeff Payne provides an excellent example of the kind of flawed exercise of police power that is dividing our country. Of course this terrible example of policing comes as absolutely no surprise to people of color who have lost family and friends in police shootings and who endure countless indignities inflicted upon their communities by poor policing practices.
It is now apparent that respectful interaction and negotiated policies are not the full answer. We need, instead, to rethink police practices.
Police today are trained to immediately “take charge” of any situation. They are given military-style training and weapons; they are drilled until self-defense is virtually a reflex. Due to our overwhelming fear of crime and criminals we have not only allowed police to use deadly force but also to use ethically questionable tactics — we expect police, for example, to deploy complex language to defeat cherished constitutional protections (e.g. “Do you mind if I search your vehicle?”). If a profession trained to use omission cannot win public trust, it isn’t worthy of public trust.
Why did it fall to nurse Wubbels to make the public release of this awful scenario? If the chief of police was indeed appalled by the conduct, why didn’t he or his colleagues immediately consult the district attorney or otherwise release the tape immediately? Honestly, what “investigation” remained to be completed? Clearly, those in authority, realizing that they had absolutely inflammatory evidence, tried to keep it quiet. Society can no longer trust the old model of policing.
The failure evident in the abuse of Wubbels was systematic and not merely the result of an individual’s poor decisions — it was the result of the failure of the law enforcement profession. At least one commentator has identified Payne as a kind and gentle paramedic. Let us assume that his supervisor was also generally a wise leader of men. The failure evident in this situation is the training given to police that they must always take command of the situation and use force to do so if necessary. This kind of training is at the root of our nation’s dilemma with bad policing.
Wubbels was trained to take control of her patient’s welfare. She stood up to unlawful requests with poise and dignity, she knew and referenced policy and she opened a dialogue with her own supervisor and immediately sought assistance and counsel. The medical profession has a long and distinguished history of maintaining their patients' confidences and acting to save lives without respect to persons. They have earned our trust. Likewise, we trust our fire and rescue personnel without reservation — we allow them immediate and uncontested access to our homes and property because they have earned our trust. I cannot recall an incident where a firefighter or rescue worker has abused their authority.
Our training of police literally invites them to abuse their authority. Our modern policing practices have their roots in the London Metropolitan Police Act of 1829, which was designed to create a paid profession answerable to the public that would protect life and property. The architect of the London force, Sir Robert Peel, wished to ensure that the public did not view the police as a tool of governmental oppression; police were armed with whistles, clubs and good sense — not guns.
We need nothing less than an entire re-thinking of public policing in America. Our police are too often abusive; it is to our shame that it took Wubbels’ experience to convince a majority that the current model is dangerously flawed.
James Watkins is an active member of the California State Bar and now lives in Laie, Hawaii, where he teaches accounting at Brigham Young University-Hawaii. His views are his own.