Punta Gorda (FL) Police officer Lee Coel didn’t know the difference between lead wadcutters (right, above) and .38 Special blanks (left) when he loaded his personally-owned Smith & Wesson Airweight revolver before a demonstration that saw him fire four rounds and kill a retired librarian in front of horrified onlookers.
There’s a reason why no legitimate police department uses real weapons during force-on-force training.
There’s a reason why we don’t point firearms — loaded or unloaded — at anything we’re not willing to destroy.
There’s a reason why we practice safe muzzle discipline.
There’s a reason why we assume every gun is loaded.
There’s a reason why firearms training should only be presented by qualified instructors.
Mistakes can happen, usually with tragic results.
According to investigative reports and crime scene photos released Wednesday, former Punta Gorda Police Officer Lee Coel loaded Blazer .38 Special hollow-base wadcutters into his Smith & Wesson .38 Special Airweight revolver, instead of Winchester blank rounds.
Coel then pointed his revolver at 73-year-old retired librarian Mary Knowlton and pulled the trigger four times.
Knowlton was hit twice.
“Mrs. Knowlton was struck by two of the four bullets that were fired. One bullet ricocheted off the engine hood of the parked car and struck Mrs. Knowlton in the abdomen, where it remained. Another bullet ricocheted off the engine hood and struck her in the inside of her left elbow, where it remained. A third bullet ricocheted off the engine hood and came to rest at an unknown location. The fourth bullet entered and lodged in the driver’s side door of the parked vehicle,” the FDLE report states.
Coel was fired from the Punta Gorda Police Department after he was charged with manslaughter in Mary Knowlton’s death. Knowlton turned and dropped after being hit, first going to her knees, then collapsing headfirst. Onlookers first thought it was part of the demonstration before the horror of what happened set in.
I agree with Lee Williams, the author of this story, that every Punta Gorda officer on the scene bears some degree of guilt for Mrs. Knowlton’s death. All have presumably been through force-on-force training, and should know that live firearms are never to be used in or even allowed near a scenario-based training area, which must be kept sterile at all times. All participants are supposed to be patted down and the guns checked by multiple people before these events to ensure that neither live weapons nor ammunition are present.
Knowlton was “armed” with a blue-framed Simunitions FX Glock 19 training pistol and there are photos of Chief Tom Lewis showing participants (while wearing his duty weapon in violation of training protocols) the Simunitions rounds she would be using in the scenario.
There are no pictures that show Coel’s very real gun or live hollowpoint ammunition being similarly checked by safety officers. He had both .38 Special and .380 blank rounds in the back of his vehicle, non-segregated from the live .38 Special hollow-base wadcutter (HBWC) ammunition he negligently loaded into his weapon.
Coel fired all four rounds from the revolver at Knowlton, striking her twice, including the fatal shot to her aorta. Two rounds ricocheted off a police vehicle. One was recovered from the door. Two were recovered from Knowlton’s body. The fourth round that ricocheted off the vehicle was never recovered.
While I’m still surprised that Coel couldn’t tell the difference in recoil between live ammunition and blanks, I’ll concede that HBWC ammunition typically used for target practice are very soft-shooting rounds, and he may not have had enough experience to differentiate the difference in feel between the recoil of the HBWC ammunition and blanks.
Coel bears the bulk of the responsibility in Knowlton’s death and I feel that the manslaughter charges are warranted, but I have to also think that there was a significant failure on the part of other Punta Gorda officers present who should have done more to stop a bad situation that they should have seen developing because of the lack of safety protocols being followed in the incident. I don’t think the misdemeanor charge Chief Lewis faces in the incident is sufficient.
Update: A note of caution from Greg Ellifritz, noted police officer and firearms instructor.
This is the consequence of hiring cops who aren’t “gun people.” Most current cops don’t carry revolvers, have never seen full wadcutter ammunition, or shot ammunition loaded in aluminum cases. Most police “instructors” know little more than the cops they train. The Blazer wadcutters looked sufficiently “different” from the ammunition the officer was used to firing that he assumed the wadcutters were blank cartridges, leading to tragedy.
It’s sad for me to say this, but if you are ever asked to volunteer for any police training drill, you should adamantly refuse. Most of the cops who run these “scenarios” don’t know enough to ensure your safety. Cops and citizens get shot in police training drills with alarming frequency. The only way to ensure you won’t be the next victim is to be as far as possible away from any police training exercises.