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Nelson police officer cleared of misconduct but admonished for use of force

Sgt. Nathaniel Holt had been accused of using excessive force against a Nelson man
Ron Bendle posted this image of his face on Nov. 7, 2022, and alleged he was assaulted by a Nelson police officer. (Facebook)

A Nelson police officer has been cleared of misconduct for his role in an arrest despite being chastised for his use of force by the retired judge ruling on the case.

Sgt. Nathaniel Holt of the Nelson Police Department had been accused of injuring resident Ronald Bendle during a traffic stop after Bendle was spotted driving erratically and speeding through a school zone on June 10, 2021. Holt, who arrived on scene as backup, came to believe Bendle intended to attack attending officer Const. Lisa Schmidtke. In the ensuing struggle to subdue Bendle, Holt repeatedly struck him on the head and upper body with his gun.

The case was reviewed by retired judge Brian Neal following an investigation by Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner (OPCC), an independent civilian oversight body for complaints against B.C.’s municipal departments.

In a ruling issued Dec. 22, 2023, but not made public until June 18, Neal wrote Holt acted in good faith responding to what he perceived to be a threat to another officer. He criticized Holt, however, for his actions taken during the arrest.

“I have found that although the Member [Holt] subjectively believed that his use of force was, in all of the circumstances, necessary, reasonable and appropriate, objectively such a position was unreasonable.

"However, I have also found that the Member’s motivations were focused on protecting his colleague and that the force used in completing the arrest of the Complainant [Bendle] did not evidence serious blameworthy conduct.”

Although the incident occurred in 2021, it was not made public until November 2022 when Bendle posted a video to Facebook that showed his face with two black eyes, a cut above his left eyebrow and bruising alongside the right of his face. He alleged he’d been assaulted by Holt but at the time did not provide any other details.

The case was referred to Neal after former OPCC commissioner Clayton Pecknold said he'd found "a reasonable basis to disagree" with NPD Chief Donovan Fisher's opinion that Holt was not guilty of misconduct.

Fisher declined to comment on the investigation's outcome due to an ongoing civil suit by Bendle in B.C. Supreme Court that names Holt, Schmidtke, NPD and the City of Nelson as defendants. Fisher also did not say if Holt has since returned to active duty.

Kevin McLaren, a Vancouver-based lawyer representing Bendle, said his client disagrees with Neal's decision but declined to comment further while the matter is before the court.

The arrest

Neal's review, in which Holt, Bendle and Schmidtke's names are redacted, is the first time exact details of the arrest have been made public.

The incident began when Schmidtke noticed a rolling stop by a vehicle at an intersection, The vehicle, operated by Bendle, then began "moving through a school zone at an elevated speed," which prompted Schmidtke to pull him over.

Bendle met Schmidtke with hostility and complained the stop had aggravated his post-traumatic stress disorder. Neal's report confirms Bendle was suffering from a medical condition but redacts what it was.

Schmidtke returned to her car and requested backup. Neal writes Bendle continued to be irate in his car but did not show any overt threat of violence toward Schmidtke nor did he have a weapon visible, although a can of bear spray was seen on the passenger side door.

When Holt arrived, Schmidtke stayed in her car to work on a ticket. Neal writes that Holt was behind Bendle's car when he "overheard words emanating from the Complainant to the effect that: 'That’s it. I think I have a knife. I need a knife. I’m gonna end this. I’m stabbing her'" while rummaging for something.

Holt did not see a knife or any other weapon, but unholstered his gun and moved to the driver's door as Bendle began to exit the vehicle.

This led to what Neal describes as “an unfortunate immediate violent escalation of events.”

Holt, who to this point had not issued any verbal command to Bendle, grabbed him with his left hand while still holding his gun in his right hand. During the ensuing struggle to subdue Bendle, who resisted arrest, Holt struck him twice in the upper neck area, on the right side of his chest, on the right side under his arm, then finally three times with his gun against Bendle's head as Schmidtke held him.

The entire time of the incident from initial stop to arrest lasted four-to-five minutes.

Bendle remained aggressive, injuring his own face in the police car en route to the department, and refused medical assistance in the cell. Neal writes that video recordings show some of Bendle's injuries were self-inflicted.

He was eventually hospitalized and required regular follow-up appointments regarding his injuries, the specifics of which are redacted.

'An unreasonable use of force'

While Neal did not find Holt guilty of misconduct, he did fault the officer's handling of the arrest.

Holt knew of Bendle's PTSD claim and emotional state, but made no attempt to de-escalate the situation. He had also unholstered his gun, and believed he could not reholster it during the struggle with Bendle.

Neal notes Bendle had no weapon and Schmidtke was safe in her vehicle when Holt moved to make the arrest. Any use of Holt's gun, Neal observed, would have been dangerous in the populated residential neighbourhood where the arrest took place.

Holt believed that drawing his gun was necessary for protection. But the Vancouver investigating officer and Neal each disagreed, and Neal added an officer with similar training and experience to Holt would not have responded the same way.

Neal also criticized Holt's use of the brachial stun technique to subdue Bendle. Neal wrote the move is "fraught with difficulty and often ineffective," but he also conceded Canadian law "recognizes that officers are not required to measure the force they use with precision."

"The subsequent multiple strikes to the Complainant’s head in an effort to apply a brachial stun was similarly objectively an unreasonable use of force unjustified by policy, training and law."

Neal recommended, but did not order, Holt take further training in de-escalation and crisis management techniques.

"I find that the Member simply made a mistake in drawing his service pistol, resulting in a chain of events that led to the assault of the Complainant with that pistol. Those actions were collectively errors in judgment made in good faith during an attempt to complete a lawful arrest that I find did not rise to the level of serious blameworthy misconduct."

Neal's complete report can be read here.

Tyler Harper

About the Author: Tyler Harper

I’m editor-reporter at the Nelson Star, where I’ve worked since 2015.
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