The evolution was a force-on-force demonstration in a public relations exercise that’s coming to a city near you, if it hasn’t already: “Citizens’ Police Academy,” where the cops teach ordinary citizens things about a cop’s job that your ordinary engaged citizen doesn’t know, unless he knows a lot of cops.
Citizen Mary Knowlton of Punta Gorda, FL, a retired librarian, was playing “cop” in an exercise designed to show how little time a cop has to make the shoot/no-shoot decision. Officer Lee Coel was playing felon, and he got the drop on Knowlton, firing several shots (some stories have suggested six) from his training/simulator pistol.
Except, it wasn’t his training pistol. It was his service pistol, as everyone in the room immediately realized, in shock. (With the apparent exception of Coel, or he’d have stopped at one shot).
On Aug. 9, Mary Knowlton, a 73-year-old retired librarian, was participating in a police night hosted by the Punta Gorda Chamber of Commerce when Punta Gorda police officer Lee Coel, 28, shot and killed her with a weapon meant for training.
Knowlton was acting as a victim in a “shoot/don’t shoot” scenario, and Coel — who was playing the “bad guy” — shot her several times.
Knowlton was rushed to the hospital, where, to make an inverted paraphrase of Bones McCoy, she needed a miracle worker, not a doctor. She died there.
With no conceivable justification for such a simply prevented fatal screwup, the town fathers fell over themselves in haste to settle the civil case.
Punta Gorda city council members approved a $2.06 million settlement with the Knowlton family in November, nearly three months after the shooting.
The criminal case has been taking longer, but that’s the nature of criminal cases, especially against cops.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement conducted an investigation into the officer-involved shooting and submitted its findings to the state attorney’s office.
Punta Gorda Police Chief Tom Lewis and officer Lee Coel will both face charges in the shooting death of Mary Knowlton, who was accidentally killed during a citizen’s police academy demonstration in August.
Coel has been charged with felony manslaughter and Lewis with culpable negligence, a misdemeanor. Coel has been placed under arrest. Lewis will not be arrested but was given a summons to appear in court.
Coel could get up to 30 years in prison and a $10,000 fine, Steven Russell, state attorney for the 20th Judicial Circuit, said. The chief could receive up to 60 days in jail.
We’re not sure of why they’re keelhauling the chief, but we can’t argue with the charges against the cop. This kind of gross and consequential negligence is one reason why that felony manslaughter charge is in the statute book.
If you’re not paranoid about a training gun that looks and feels like your service firearm, if you’re not constantly checking and double-checking, and if you’re not still observing the three most fundamental rules even when you know the training aid can’t possibly hurt anybody, well, then the difference between your situation and the much less enviable one in which Lee Coel finds himself is not dependent on anything but happenstance, chance, fortune… luck.
Complacency and disrespect for training aids are always freighted with the possibility of a bad shoot like this. Be alert for those hazardous attitudes.