The Florida Police Chiefs Association sent out a statement Tuesday about the fatal Aug. 9 shooting of retired librarian Mary Knowlton by former Punta Gorda Police officer Lee Coel — a “situation” the FPCA says it’s been “closely watching.”
Coel was charged with manslaughter and fired. Punta Gorda Police Chief Tom Lewis was charged with culpable negligence — a misdemeanor — and placed on paid leave.
“We are deeply concerned as to the implications this case could have for law enforcement leaders across the nation,” FPCA executive director Amy Mercer said in the press release.
Mercer said the FPCA encourages “all of our members to familiarize themselves with the facts of the case in keeping with our shared goal of protecting our officers and the citizens we serve.”
I spoke to Ms. Mercer Tuesday afternoon. I needed a bit of clarification about her comments. I wanted to know exactly what she and the FCPA were implying.
“Well, we’re concerned about the potential for increased criminal liability for law enforcement managers, under circumstances that have been traditionally resolved in civil court,” she said.
Mercer wouldn’t say whether she or her association believe the charges against Lewis are merited or whether she believes prosecutors overreached.
“I wouldn’t say that. I have not had the opportunity to review the whole case,” she said. “This seems something out of the normal.”
I asked Mercer, twice, if she believed that in general, a police chief should be held accountable for the criminal actions of their officers.
She dodged the question, twice.
“Again, I am not familiar with all of the details of the case,” she said. “We are, as stated, closely monitoring it and will continue to do so. Again, we are concerned about the potential for increased criminal liability for our police chiefs.”
I asked her if this “potential for increased criminal liability” for the chiefs would be a bad thing.
She punted, again.
“I would have to review and look at the circumstances of each and every case,” she said.
Mercer told me she wants “to make sure and encourage our chiefs and other law enforcement leaders to be aware of the facts of the case.”
On that we agree.
Florida’s 900 police chiefs and law enforcement executives should know exactly how Knowlton was shot to death at a training demonstration — a “citizens academy” held for her and 30 other members of the Punta Gorda Chamber of Commerce.
The chiefs should be aware that Coel loaded 148-grain wadcutters into his personal .38 Special revolver, and that neither he nor the lieutenant who gave him the ammunition were smart enough to tell the difference between live rounds and blanks.
Florida’s top cops should know that Knowlton’s husband Gary watched from just feet away as his wife was shot twice by Coel — one round struck her elbow, and the other perforated her aorta.
The chiefs should know that no legitimate police department in the world points real guns at real people and calls it training.
They should also realize that while there were no safety officers in place at the demonstration Aug. 9, all it would have taken was for one — just one — patrol officer to step up, call a ceasefire and bring this unbelievably stupid and dangerous idea to a screeching halt.
The chiefs should know that their fellow FPCA member — Chief Tom Lewis — attended the demonstration. He was there, yet he too did nothing to prevent the carnage.
I think the FPCA’s message is crystal clear: They don’t want their members held accountable for the actions of their officers, regardless of the severity of the misdeeds.
In other words, the FPCA believes their members should be above the law.
On that we disagree.