Three months ago, Salt Lake City Detective Jeff Payne arrested a hospital nurse in what became a highly criticized incident.
Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown has now fired the detective after an internal investigation determined Payne violated department policies. Payne’s attorney said his client plans to appeal the decision, and blames his firing on the public release of body camera footage that recorded the arrest.
In a disciplinary letter to Payne, the police chief noted that he “demonstrated extremely poor professional judgment” for an officer with 27 years of law enforcement experience, which called into question Payne’s ability to continue serving the public.
Lt. James Tracy, Payne’s supervisor who originally ordered the arrest, was also stripped of leadership responsibilities within the department and demoted to the rank of officer.
In a separate disciplinary letter, the police chief said Tracy acted impulsively and without attempting to understand the law or the facts of the situation. This showed an unacceptable lack of judgment and leadership, and unnecessarily escalated the situation.
These actions by the police chief are both appropriate and sufficient.
The FBI is currently investigating the incident at the request of local prosecutors. But it is unlikely Payne will face charges—nor should he. Criminal charges in this particular case would be both unwarranted from a legal standpoint, and undesirable from a policy standpoint.
From a legal standpoint, prosecuting police officers for criminal misconduct or civil rights violations is difficult. Under 18 U.S.C. § 242, the Justice Department has the authority to prosecute law enforcement officers who willfully deprive someone of a civil right while acting “under color of law.”
In other words, if an officer uses excessive force, fabricates evidence, intentionally conducts a false arrest, or commits a number of other wrongs during the course of his duty as an officer, he can face criminal charges.
But the key word is “willfully.” The Justice Department defines this term under federal law to mean a person intended to do something the law forbids, and the Supreme Court has held several times that, for criminal prosecutions, the person must actually know his conduct is unlawful.
Under this definition, prosecutors wanting to charge Payne for false arrest would have to show he knew there was no lawful basis on which to arrest the nurse, and not just that the arrest was in fact unjustified.
It appears clear from the body camera footage that Payne and Tracy considered their warrantless blood draw to be lawful. They therefore could have reasonably considered the nurse to be hindering a police investigation, even though they were wrong about the law.
Under this context, it is highly unlikely that prosecutors would be able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Payne willfully deprived the nurse of her civil rights.
To be sure, Payne acted unprofessionally and destroyed the public’s ability to trust his future actions as a law enforcement officer. His firing was therefore warranted, especially considering that this was not Payne’s first serious issue in the department.
In 2013, Payne was disciplined for sexually harassing a female co-worker in a “persistent and severe” way. He may have received commendations earlier in career, but his most recent actions show that he is worthy of rebuke and removal.
Nevertheless, not every officer who is fired for misconduct should be charged with a crime. Law enforcement officers face constant scrutiny from a public that is prone to second-guess split-second decisions.
Police officers are often forced to make critical, life-and-death decisions without full knowledge of the situation, and with no way to obtain that knowledge. Mistakes and momentary lapses of judgment can have dire consequences that turn into highly publicized media nightmares for the entire law enforcement community.
While honest mistakes and instances of unprofessionalism should, of course, be reviewed, corrected, and, when necessary, disciplined, they should not be prosecuted as crimes—not when the job is so difficult and there are other avenues for successfully deterring officers from making those mistakes again.
Officers need reassurance that one misstep, one failure to fully grasp the factual reality, or one unintentional misapplication of the law will not ruin their lives.
Criminal prosecution of police officers should be reserved for those officers who intentionally commit crimes that are clearly outside the scope of their duties, and for those who act with gross negligence while carrying out their duties.
This occasionally does happen, and these instances should not be downplayed or relegated to internal review by disciplinary boards. When a detective, for example, plants evidence to convict defendants, or an officer fires 16 shots into a suspect who is already incapacitated, it may well be perfectly appropriate to file criminal charges.
But that does not appear to be the situation here.
While Payne clearly misunderstood the law and acted inappropriately out of frustration, his actions were not entirely or grossly inconsistent with his responsibilities as an officer. He handled a situation poorly, and turned calm into chaos on the basis of emotion.
Payne does not deserve to wear the badge anymore. But he doesn’t deserve to wear a bright orange jumpsuit, either.