Clueless Punta Gorda Police Chief fired for his role in training death of retired librarian

Punta Gorda Police Chief Tom Lewis was fired yesterday, despite his last minute attempts to convince the city manager to opt for a demotion rather than a termination.

In a series of meetings over the weekend, Lewis told Punta Gorda City Manager Howard Kunik that he’d gladly accept a demotion to lieutenant, but that he’d never voluntarily resign.

Kunik, it turns out, would have none of that.

He fired Lewis yesterday — about a year after 73-year-old retired librarian Mary Knowlton was shot and killed by now former PGPD officer Lee Coel during a use-of-force demonstration — part of a citizens’ training academy held at the department for Knowlton and other members of the Punta Gorda Chamber of Commerce.

Lewis went out as he had led the agency — cluelessly.

According to an internal affairs report released yesterday, Lewis’ department was a tragic accident just waiting to happen.

Investigators concluded that while the department had safety protocols in place during the officers’ force-on-force training — which involved Simunitions — none of these safeguards were used when civilians were “trained” by the cops.

You’d think there would have been more and stricter protocols in place when civilians were handed a Sim gun and told to go to work — Knowlton had never even held a firearm in her life. In fact, investigators found just the opposite.

They also found that no one was in charge of safety during the exercise that killed Knowlton — they didn’t have a safety officer!  Neither were participants searched for real firearms — a mandatory requirement when Sim guns are used.

And it gets much worse.

Several, if not many, of the officers in attendance knew that Coel was going to shoot back at Knowlton with a real handgun, which they assumed was going to be loaded with blanks. That, in and of itself, would merit severe discipline at any real police agency.

Instead, Coel loaded his revolver with wadcutters — he couldn’t tell the difference between wadcutters and blanks. The wadcutters were given to him by Lt. Katie Heck, who has since left the agency and now works at the Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office. She too thought they were blanks.

Knowlton was hit by two of the target rounds: One clipped her arm and another perforated her aorta.

She bled out internally while her husband — and the clueless police chief — watched in horror from just feet away.

The IA report includes a statement Lewis made to investigators. They asked him if he thought he could still lead the department after Knowlton was killed on his watch while he watched. He assured them he could — again a clueless statement. The good chief seems to have forgotten his recent week-long trial, during which he threw his entire command staff as well as most of his officers under the bus — blaming them for Knowlton’s death while refusing to accept any personal responsibility .

Lewis was charged with misdemeanor negligence for creating and allowing conditions that led to the tragedy. A local jury bought his everybody-but-me argument and acquitted the chief, but not before his defense team had grilled the rest of the department.

Coel was charged with manslaughter for shooting Knowlton. His trial date has not yet been set.

During a press conference yesterday, Kunik announced he will now begin a national search for a new chief. That is a good move.

Kunik mentioned that he’d received hundreds of emails, letters and personal visits from residents who begged him not to bag the chief. It turns out there wasn’t a club, board or group in or near Punta Gorda that Lewis hadn’t joined or at least spoken to.

I’ve seen this type of police chief before and I don’t think much of them.

Kudos to the city manager for his decision to look outside the agency for a new top cop. The men and women of the Punta Gorda Police department need a real leader, not a socialite.

I hope that Lewis’ firing will now give Mary Knowlton’s family a bit more closure. They are in our thoughts and prayers.

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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.

3 Comments

  1. Well, I’m glad the city manager didn’t cave in and fired this guy. He represents the very worst kind of person to schmooze their way into a leadership position and then utterly fail everyone he is supposed to serve, guide and lead. I would imagine the IA team weren’t too impressed with his testimony blaming everyone else in the department for his failure.

    I have read the IA report, and I have to say that after planning, running and participating in scores of training exercises involving civilians and laypersons, and hundreds of military force-on-force exercises, I am utterly appalled at how many times the report indicated that senior department staff “assumed” that someone else had run safety checks or that “everything was set.” Frankly, having been an Army Combat Arms Officer and spending four years at the National Training Center, I can tell you that you never assume anything, and if something foes south during training it is the CO who is called to answer for it. Yes, all the officers and senior staff should have known better, but Lewis did not fulfill his role as a leader in making sure everything was done by the book. Lewis was not, and never will be a leader. And although he was acquitted of criminal charges, I would think Mary Knowlton’s family have a very strong wrongful death civil case against both the department and Lewis and Coel as individuals.

  2. I agree with every word Mikial said
    In addition, I would say why even bother with simunitions or blanks
    The whole point of the exercise was to familiarize the public with police shoot, don’t shoot decisions
    You could teach civilians all about shoot, don’t shoot using your fingers and saying “bang, bang”
    This entire incident was completely unnecessary

  3. Pingback: Weekend Knowledge Dump- September 8, 2017 | Active Response Training

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