Charges resulting from fatal Punta Gorda Police shooting should be a warning for other top cops

Punta Gorda Police Officer Lee Coel was charged with manslaughter yesterday for the Aug. 9 fatal shooting of retired librarian Mary Knowlton.

Those charges were expected. There’s really nothing else prosecutors could have done.

But, in a move that took most everyone by surprise, prosecutors also charged Punta Gorda Police Chief Tom Lewis with culpable negligence for his role in Knowlton’s death. Lewis wasn’t arrested for the misdemeanor charge. Instead, he received a summons to show up in court.

Lewis’ charges are nearly unprecedented — a sitting Florida police chief held criminally liable for the misconduct of his men.

“Looking at the totality of the facts and evidence brought our office to this decision,” State Attorney Stephen B. Russell said during a press conference on Wednesday.

The “totality of the facts and evidence” are damning.

In what was billed as a role-playing “training demonstration” for local VIPs, businessmen and other invited guests, Coel aimed a revolver — which he believed was loaded with blanks — at the 73-year-old grandmother and pulled the trigger several times.

Knowlton fell dead while her husband and other attendees watched from just feet away.

I still can’t fathom the insanity that must have gripped those responsible for organizing this “training demonstration.” Pointing a firearm at someone — whether it’s loaded with blanks or not — and then pulling the trigger during a training evolution is crazy stupid.

Now, it’s also criminal.

I’ve struggled to put the horrific chain of events that led to Knowlton’s death into context for my colleagues and other non-shooters. There’s just no way. The actions and inactions of the officers involved are unfathomable, unprecedented and unreal.

State Attorney Russell should be commended for prosecuting the chief too, as he bears the ultimate responsibility for the conduct of his officers.

While Lewis’ charge is only a misdemeanor, it’s also a career killer, and should serve as a warning for other top cops and sheriffs around the state, whose training is on par with PGPD’s.

The Punta Gorda city manager is holding a press conference this morning. I’m sure he’ll announce a firing — Coel — and a resignation — Lewis — which he’ll “regretfully” accept.

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About Author

Lee Williams can’t remember a time in his life when he wasn’t shooting. Before becoming a journalist, Lee served in the Army and worked as a police officer. He’s earned more than a dozen journalism awards as a reporter, and three medals of valor as a cop. He is an NRA-certified law enforcement firearms instructor, an avid tactical shooter and a training junkie. When he’s not busy as a senior investigative reporter, he is usually shooting his AKs, XDs and CZs. If you don’t run into him at a local gun range, you can reach him at 941.284.8553, by email, or by regular mail to 1777 Main St., Sarasota, FL 34236. You can follow him on Twitter: @HT_GunWriter and on Facebook @The Gun Writer.

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