Without a doubt, it was a tragedy. A training event for the public, despite to educate the average citizen turned deadly and a woman was killed. This isn’t anything new, the event happened over a year ago, but time doesn’t fade the awful nature of what happened.
Now, the police chief of the department that put on the event has been fired.
Punta Gorda Police Chief Tom Lewis was fired Wednesday — the latest chapter in the ongoing fallout following the fatal shooting of a librarian last year during a police training demonstration.
City Manager Howard Kunik announced Lewis’ firing during a press conference at City Hall, saying he’d received more than a hundred letters in support of Lewis.
“I cannot retain a leader based on character alone,” Kunik said. “We will begin a national search for a police chief immediately.”
In June, Lewis was found not guilty of a misdemeanor charge of culpable negligence in the death of 73-year-old Mary Knowlton. She held a blue simulated weapon on Aug. 9, 2016 while Officer Lee Coel used a Smith & Wesson revolver loaded with wadcutters — bullets that look similar to blanks. Knowlton was shot twice during the “shoot/don’t shoot” community event and died.
Knowlton reportedly had never held a gun in her life when she was picked to take part in the demonstration. Coel then shot what he thought were blanks at the woman, killing her.
While Lewis was acquitted of any crime in the death, there is a lesson in here for all of us to bear in mind. It seems that the Punta Gorda Police Department took a somewhat less than professional approach to training events with the public.
In an internal affairs investigation of the deadly incident, investigators found Lewis had a “casual approach” to safety during the community event. “The Punta Gorda Police Department has an exceptional record of safety protocols when conducting officer training,” Kunik said. “But citizen demonstrations showed an inexplicable departure from those protocols.”
I have some theories as to why that was the case, but none of them are relevant.
What is relevant is are the kinds of things we can learn from an event like this so it never happens to us. Ideally, we’d like for this to never happen again. What can we take from this?
First, the basics. Rule One of handling a firearm is to always treat it like it’s loaded. That didn’t happen. Plain and simple.
Additionally, there was literally nothing going on that day that required for the officer to use a real pistol for this demonstration. Nothing at all. I get paranoid about checking my weapon when I’m dry firing even though I know for a fact I’ve unloaded the weapon, so I have a hard time imagining pointing a weapon at someone I’m not prepared to shoot. In the future, maybe using an airsoft weapon or some other option that physically can’t take live ammo would be a better option.
I want to know what you all think. What do you take away from this that you can apply to your own training and if you’re an instructor, your teaching?