Why hasn’t the Punta Gorda Police Chief resigned or been fired?

A photo by the Charlotte Sun of Punta Gorda Police officer Lee Coel and retired librarian Mary Knowlton seconds after Coel fatally shot Knowlton during a PGPD training program on Aug. 9, 2016. [Provided by Punta Gorda Police Department and Florida Department of Law Enforcement]

On his “Meet the chief” web page, Punta Gorda Police Chief Tom Lewis makes the following claim: “Our management philosophy consists of one simple statement – we are committed to providing superior and extraordinary customer service to our residents.”

Given recent events, I would strongly disagree.

Lewis released dozens of photos and document yesterday from the Aug. 9 killing of retired librarian Mary Knowlton, including investigative reports from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

The photos — many too graphic to publish — show Lewis standing near the shooting scene, occasionally wiping his brow, watching as First Responders fight to save the 73-year-old’s life. It was a futile effort. One of the rounds perforated her aorta.

Former PGPD officer Lee Coel, the FDLE reports indicate, loaded wadcutters into his .38 caliber revolver instead of blanks before shooting at Knowlton. The fatal ammunition was given to him by a lieutenant, who brought them from home. Neither of these officers was capable of telling the difference between wadcutters and blanks.

Prosecutors have charged Coel with manslaughter. Lewis fired the young officer after Coel pleaded not guilty.

Lewis was charged with culpable negligence — a misdemeanor — for his role in the killing. He’s been placed on paid leave, but remains employed by the city.

I sent an email this morning to Punta Gorda City Manager Howard Kunik, asking if he planned to fire his police chief. I also sent Lewis an email, asking if he planned to resign.

I have yet to hear back from either man.

In my humble opinion, it’s high time for Lewis to get gone. There’s no walking this one back.

Lewis wasn’t shuffling paperwork in his office when Coel shot Knowlton to death. He was there — at the scene — watching the events unfold. He could have easily put a stop to it. He could have objected when Coel raised his Smith & Wesson Airweight, pointed it toward Knowlton and pulled the trigger four times.

Lewis didn’t do a thing to stop it.

He did nothing.

Since the shooting occurred, I’ve been barraged by calls and emails from firearms instructors, tactical training experts and police officers — both active and retired — all saying the same thing: What were they thinking?

I haven’t heard — not even once — from anyone who defended this “training,”

It’s that bad — that far outside the norm.

Lewis was there — the top cop at the scene.

He could have stopped it.

He didn’t.

Now he must go.

Knowlton’s killing was so horrific, yet so easily preventable, there’s no way the chief will be able to provide “superior and extraordinary customer service” to his residents ever again.

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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 1741 Main St., Sarasota, FL 34236. You can follow him on Twitter: @HT_GunWriter and on Facebook @The Gun Writer.

16 Comments

  1. Lee,
    I couldn’t agree more – he should be fired. How about the lieutenant who supplied the rounds? Have they been fired

    • Michael Scott on

      I believe only a person who has been experience and cerfied in law enforcement should be able to make an type of recommendations on this case. Chief Lewis has not lost his Fla LE certification and until that occurs is presummed to be capable of acting in confidence within the high enough standards to carry out his job. The is a certain order that officers go thru when challenged by their performance and though negligent Lewis should no malice or bad moral conduct that would prevent him from learning important lessons and becoming a positive asset to the law enforcement community moving forward. Having served in the military and law enforcement I understand that his team made a critical error that was unintentional and could have been made by any person unfamiliar with the specifics no having tested and been highly knowledgeable in the practice of utilizing blanks. I have seen the dangers first hand training in the army airborne, although until now have only know of such accidents occuring in acting world. Whats needed is stronger rules that obligate persons using such ammunition to have tested it prior to use.

      • Thank you for serving however we aren’t in the 19th century here. Chief Lewis was in charge of this and should have made every effort to make sure everyone was safe. They’re lucky only one person was shot. Look at the action photos of the scene. There were a lot of people there that day. 4 people could be dead since 4 shots were taken. Chief Lewis didn’t make a simple mistake like leaving a radio on the counter at a store, he made the mistake of not controlling the situation and a person died. He is culpable. So by your standards, if a person with a CDL license kills someone on the highway because he was talking on his cell phone, he shouldn’t lose his CDL license because he can learn from this lesson and become a better CDL driver? No, he has his CDL license because he is expected to act at a higher level than the average Joe and the Chief is no different. He is Chief because he rose to a higher level than the average cop and has failed at that position. Someone died because of his lack of control.

  2. When everyone assumes a person is an expert or adequately trained then that is your first indication of the weak link. Chief Lewis should have inspected both the real and the fake gun before this training was started. Some may call this micro-management but it isn’t. When peoples lives are at stake, Chief Lewis should have been the “expert” and managed the entire scenario. He should have been fired already. This guy is charged with a crime and he’s still working. My typical response to this is “In Florida, Half Assed is good enough”.

  3. Patrick Shannon on

    “The fatal ammunition was given to him by a lieutenant, who brought them from home.”

    My jaw just dropped to the floor…

  4. “Neither of these officers was capable of telling the difference between wadcutters and blanks.” So has Coel stated that he thought he was using blanks, and couldn’t tell the difference? Does this indicate stupidity, poor training, or would it be usual for officers to not be able to tell a blank from a wadcutter? I have zero knowledge of firearms and ammunition, so this is a serious question. Obviously Coel was wrong to point directly at the victim either way, but is it really so difficult to tell the difference, and shouldn’t a police officer know this??

    • T.
      It’s incredibly easy to tell the difference between wadcutters and blanks. As they have no lead bullet, blanks are far lighter. Also, you can actually see the top of the lead bullet in a wadcutter. Both type of rounds were in marked boxes. One said “Blanks.” The other was wadcutters. You can also tell the difference when firing the rounds. Blanks don’t have much recoil, because there’s no lead bullet getting pushed out the barrel by the gasses. To sum, they should have known the difference. I hope this helps.

  5. Chief Lewis is an ineffective administrator. He is an after the fact policy maker. He is and has been over his head. He may be a good pr person for the PGPD but certainly not leadership ability. He should be demoted/dismissed immediately. If city manager Kunik fails to do anything about this he needs to be replaced as well. Wake up city council

  6. Not to pile on; but, it is very dangerous to discharge even a blank round in the direction of a human being. Blank shells have a “wad” holding the gunpowder in the shell casing. This wax or plastic material, along with gunpowder debris, is forcefully discharged through the barrel. It can cause eye and skin damage.

    The concussion of a blank round fired near a person can seriously damage an eardrum. (Don’t ask me how I know.)

    My condolences to the victim’s family. In hopes of providing them some peace and closure, I pray that the officials responsible for this tragedy will do the right thing.

  7. Retired in Placida on

    Bottom line here is that you should always treat a firearm as loaded and NEVER point a firearm at a person unless you intend to shoot that person! Why were the members of the PGPD using real weapons for this training? The Chief is responsible for everything his personnel do at all times. The other supervisors and police personnel who were participating in the training are also just as responsible as Chief Lewis and Ofc. Coel. This tragedy should not have happened.

  8. They were supposed to be professionals , and they could not tell the difference between live and blank. The lady lieutenant needs to be fired also. Is that called accomplice to the fact , she handed out the bullets that killed the sweet woman.

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