Lee Coel, the Punta Gorda (FL) police officer who shot and killed a retired librarian when he used a real gun and live ammunition in a force-on-force demo, has been terminated by his department as he awaits trial for manslaughter.
Two weeks after Punta Gorda Police Officer Lee Coel was charged with manslaughter in the death of a Punta Gorda woman during a police training exercise, city officials fired him Thursday.
Coel, 28, shot and killed Mary Knowlton during a role-playing exercise on Aug. 9, 2016 at police headquarters. During a training demonstration that was part of a special “Chamber Police Night” for local business leaders and other citizens, Coel pointed a revolver, which he believed was loaded with blanks, at the 73-year-old Knowlton and pulled the trigger several times, according to accounts.
She fell dead. Her husband was among those watching.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigated the shooting and forwarded its findings to the State Attorney’s Office, which charged Coel with felony manslaughter. He could be sentenced to 30 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
Prosecutors also charged Police Chief Tom Lewis with culpable negligence, a misdemeanor. Lewis, who could face 60 days in jail, has since been placed on administrative leave pending an internal affairs investigation.
Dozens of police training experts and firearms instructors criticized the use of a real firearm during the demonstration — especially with civilians — rather than an inert “blue gun.”
It frankly stuns me that the Punta Gorda Police so thoroughly failed to follow basic training protocols common to the use of man-marker rounds, which should include:
- a thorough pat-down and inspection of everyone involved in the scenario that they don’t have and firearms, ammunition, or other weapons. Some agencies insist on removing pocket knives and nail files, and even pencils and pens.
- a through inspection of the area to ensure there are no firearms in the training area other than those converted to fire man-marker rounds being used in the demo.
- an inspection of each firearm used in the demo to ensure it had been converted to only fire man-marker rounds.
- an inspection of every individual man-marker round to ensure they are within specifications.
- protective equipment for each role-player, and eye protection for any bystanders present.
It’s breathtakingly clear that the majority of these safety protocols were flagrantly violated for Coel to get his hands on a fully-functional revolver with live ammunition. This means that the required safety rings that would have prevented the chamber of live ammunition were not installed in the firearm, that no (competent) inspection took place to ensure live rounds were not present, and stunningly, that Coel continued to fire after discharging the first live round. An anyone who has ever fired man-maker rounds can tell you from firsthand experience, shooting live ammunition and man-marker rounds is very different in both terms of recoil and sound. Man-marker rounds are subsonic and very quiet with minimal recoil, while live ammunition out of a short-barreled revolver is both very loud and typically comes with significant recoil.
There was no reason for a live firearm nor necessarily even a man-marker gun to be used in this sort of demonstration, as man-marker rounds can break the skin and leave significant welts and bruising (and I have the scars to prove it), which I would hope that departments would avoid introducing to citizens, especially in a public relations event.
My only surprise in this fiasco is that only Coel and Police Chief Tom Lewis were the only officers facing charges in this incident, unless it was Lewis’s responsibility to function as the safety during this demo instead of some other officer.
I’m sure former officer Coel is wracked with grief for killing Mrs. Knowlton, but he (and Lewis) appear to have broken just about every mandatory safety protocol, and probably the recommended ones as well.
Decently trained and diligent officers don’t make these kind of mistakes.