Police

Jackson Memorial Nurse Attacked by Miami Cop in 2018 Sues City

A 104-foot-tall mural at Jackson Memorial Hospital depicts healthcare workers as superheroes.
A 104-foot-tall mural at Jackson Memorial Hospital depicts healthcare workers as superheroes. Photo by Jess Swanson
Between the moments of silence in their honor and a 104-foot tall mural at Jackson Memorial Hospital depicting healthcare workers as superheroes, the COVID-19 pandemic has placed a renewed appreciation on nurses.

So it's hard to imagine that four years ago at Jackson Memorial Hospital's behavioral health unit, a uniformed, on-duty Miami police officer grabbed then-66-year-old registered nurse James Nicholson by his shoulders and slammed him to the ground in an incident that was captured on surveillance video and made national headlines. The veteran officer, Lester Bohnenblust, became violent and threatened Nicholson with arrest after demanding that his niece be admitted to the hospital even though nurses had determined she didn't meet the criteria for admission.

Bohnenblust was swiftly fired, and a year later took responsibility for the assault in court, where he was sentenced to 45 days in jail and three years' probation after being convicted of false imprisonment, and battery of someone 65 years of age or older.

"Nothing ever prepared me to have a policeman attack me at my job," Nicholson told the judge at Bohnenblust's criminal trial in June 2019. "I was never, ever expecting to be grabbed from the back and thrown from side to side to the point where I was yelling at the top of my lungs, 'Help! Help!'"

Now, nearly four years after the May 2018 incident, Nicholson, who has retired, is taking Bohnenblust, the City of Miami, and former Miami police chief Jorge Colina to court for damages in excess of $75,000. In a federal lawsuit filed on April 24 (attached at the end of this story), Nicholson not only accuses Bohnenblust of excessive force and false imprisonment but also claims that the City of Miami's policies and procedures — including accepting officers' versions of events regarding use of force, and failure to impartially investigate complaints — has resulted in an environment in which officers like Bohnenblust can engage in misconduct without accountability.

"They have this climate where officers are, for the most part, feeling invincible because of the lack of action taken against them when they do commit violations," attorney Roderick Vereen, who is representing Nicholson, tells New Times.

Bohnenblust did not respond to New Times' requests for comment via email and phone. In a statement via email, City of Miami attorney Victoria Méndez wrote, "We look forward to addressing the matter in court."

Bohnenblust was fired, arrested, and convicted for his assault on Nicholson. But other Miami police officers have been accused of skirting repercussions for alleged police misconduct. For example, Javier Ortiz, one of the department's most controversial officers, has kept his job despite being the subject of numerous internal affairs investigations and more than 60 excessive force complaints during his nearly decade-long career with the department. When the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) and several other agencies began investigating Ortiz's alleged pattern of abuse against minorities back in 2018, FDLE investigators suspected Ortiz was "shown favoritism" and suggested probes were drawn out so that he could avoid discipline.

Colina, who retired from the department last year and now runs a private consulting firm, tells New Times that no matter what the lawsuit alleges, there was "no way" he could have foreseen Bohnenblust's actions at the hospital that day.

"I certainly don't take it personally. I understand that when you agree to a position like chief at a police agency, these things that can happen," Colina says of the lawsuit. "What's important is that we, of course, recognized what [Bohnenblust] did, and not only fired him but arrested him for his actions."

The United States is in the midst of a "critical nursing shortage," but the stress of the 2018 incident led Nicholson to retire from his decades-long career. It became "too overwhelming," Vereen says, for Nicholson to return to Jackson after the attack and adds that his client injured his knee during the incident. At times, the attorney says, Nicholson would stand and cry with his fellow nurses, many of whom were in disbelief about what happened to him.

Now, Vereen says, his client wants to hold the city, the police department, and the former officer liable.

"I'm glad that Corporal Bohnenblust was terminated," Vereen says. "But now they need to make my client whole."
KEEP MIAMI NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Miami New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Miami, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Alex DeLuca is a staff writer at Miami New Times.
Contact: Alex DeLuca