Guest column: ‘To the Knowlton family…’

Lee’s note: This guest column is from Kenneth Murray, the co-founder of SIMUNITION, the original creator of marking cartridges for opposed force training. As the director of training for SIMUNITION and the Armiger Police Training Institute he wrote the Best Practices Guidelines for Simulation Training and in 1994 published the book Training at the Speed of Life – The Definitive Textbook for Police and Military Simulation Training.

To the Knowlton family .. you don’t know me, but I’m sorry. To the community of Punta Gorda .. the same. To most of you who read this, you will never know who I am or the connection I have, or more sadly, did not have to the incident that left Mary Knowlton dead following an event staged by the Punta Gorda Police Department at the direct hand of former officer Lee Coel who shot her to death that fateful day a few years ago.

Today I read the lead story by Lee Williams where I was informed that Lee Coel will spend NO time behind bars, with a plea deal that provides a paltry 10 years of probation and withholds adjudication. I felt like I was punched in the guts. I can’t begin to imagine how the family and community feel, beyond stunned.

You see, back in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s myself and my colleague embarked on an idea that would provide police and military groups the ability to train realistically using marking cartridges for opposed training. We invented marking cartridges – that is, the ability for people to shoot at other people in training using modified real guns. Sort of like paintball, but with real guns. Prior to this happening, it was pretty much unheard of for people or agencies to point guns at each other in training – in fact with the evolution of advanced firearms training, pointing guns at each other was all but prohibited after Col. Jeff Cooper penned his famous “Four Safety Rules” at the premiere firearms training academy Gunsite (formerly the American Pistol Institute). And so we had a LOT of work to do in order to convince professionals in the industry to do otherwise. And convince them we did. The technology and training philosophies became adopted worldwide, and force on force training became all the rage. Unfortunately, “SIMUNITION” became a generic noun for “marking cartridges” – which in and of itself is perilous since SIMUNITION was just the name of our company. The word does NOT describe any particular cartridge. In fact our brand name for our marking cartridges was actually FX. And almost all of the other types of cartridges that SIMUNITION manufactured for various training purposes could be considered lethal if fired at human beings.

Realistic simulation training is complicated business. Yet sadly there are those in the training community that will attend some training event, think “me too”, and embark in an uneducated fashion in trying to replicate that which they had just experienced. Even more sadly, this mindless and uneducated replication has proven fatal time and time again. Armed with a tiny little piece of information or an exhilarating experience to draw upon, such so-called “trainers” march in hubristic manner without taking the necessary time or expend the necessary effort to learn all they must learn in order to create a safe and effective training environment when using any of the available training technologies.

When it came to our munitions, I eventually saw the necessity to create training programs to educate our users on how, where, when and why to use each different ammunition type. We did it in a manner that taught trainers to overcome many of the limitations imposed by conventional munitions in training settings, especially in preparation for armed encounters. What was not appreciated years ago, and which persists to modern day, is the hard work required to create simulations that utilize role players and real weapons (modified to fire marking cartridges). Such training is particularly complex and requires highly specialized training, and requires a dedicated team of knowledgeable trainers.

Punta Gorda had none of that. Lee Coel possessed no such experience or training. Lee Coel was not even educated about the differences between various munitions that he confused conventional munitions with blanks. And even if he had known the difference, he was obviously clueless about the dangers that even blanks pose, given that he loaded them into an unmodified revolver that could easily fire conventional munitions.

Many people have been seriously injured or killed with blanks. Conventional blank cartridges actually have more gunpowder in them than conventional ammunition does because they are designed for specific purposes such as weapon cycling or noise and flash. They should NEVER be used in a conventional firearm that has not been specifically modified for use in opposed force training (that is, guns are pointed and fired at other people), and even if so modified that they be utilized under extremely tight safety protocols. There is little room for error. The US Military has standoff distances for blank fire that include 10 meters to the front and 5 meters to the side for safety. Lee Coel knew none of this.

My book Training at the Speed of Life was written in 1994 and has been adopted as the Best Practices Guidelines for training. At that back of that book there are 32 dead (6 others have been killed since the last printing, Mary included) who were shot to death by clueless trainers who had no sense of how to set up and run safe and effective realistic training. Two of those were shot to death using blanks.

There are countless serious, potentially life threatening injuries occurring EVERY DAY across this country because people who don’t have a clue what they are doing are bamboozling enthusiastic amateurs into believing that they are about to become involved in some “advanced training” designed to save their lives, or the lives of their loved ones, during a critical incident. Training centers are popping up everywhere, often staffed with current and retired military and police personnel. And for all of the training that I see in this training realm across the country, much of it horrifies me. In Pennsylvania less than a month ago a student was shot in the back of the head with a real bullet on the last day of a training class presented by one such training group. Basic safety protocols were ignored and the life of a young family forever altered as they care for their quadriplegic spouse and father. Last year in Jacksonville at the sheriff’s office academy a trainer was shot when their lackluster safety protocols failed allowing a live weapon into a training setting. In Mesa, Arizona several months ago, a role player was shot in the chest with a potentially lethal training cartridge when the trainees mistakenly believed their weapons were loaded with marking cartridges.

I’m sick of this nonsense.

As the grand daddy of realistic opposed force training, I am jaded. Especially given the fact that not ONE of the perpetrators of any of the killings at the back of my book (or the shootings that don’t make those pages) have faced any real legal consequences. Not one.

I can guarantee you one thing … if I were to take my daughter out to the back of the house to teach her what to do if a prowler was trying to break in and hurt her, and in the course of that education I were to shoot her dead, I would be in prison faster than my pistol could cool down. Where is my clemency? Truth told, I wouldn’t deserve it. It would be reckless and I would be responsible.

Lee Coel is nothing special. Lee Coel is not above the law. Lee Coel does not deserve the simple hand slap that he got from the justice system, and the Knowltons deserve more. The community deserves more.

Now, do I believe that Lee Coel had any intention to cause this irreparable harm? Of course not. Do I think Lee Coel is evil? Absolutely not. Although the fact that he tried to get his job back stuck in my craw. Dude … seriously??? And do I believe that Lee Coel is remorseful and will have to live his life with this terrible burden? Without question.

But I do NOT believe any of that matters when it comes to imposing REAL consequences in the hope that a message will get sent to all of the other similarly clueless trainers out there who are either too ego-centric our just too ignorant to know that the training they are providing is reckless and that they are one degree of separation away from killing, maiming or otherwise emotionally destroying another human being.

Wake up, American Law Enforcement. Yeah … you. Hey Society. You too. YEAH. YOU!!! After my 30+ years of observing them from the inside out, I can tell you that American law enforcement training standards are abysmal. If society had any real idea just how little training officers get to do the impossible tasks demanded of them, that society would never let law enforcement loose on the streets. This is NOT a knock on the hard men and women in law enforcement. It is an indictment of the money folks that would rather roll the dice hoping nothing bad happens and keep training standards low. Every city, county, state and this country as a whole seems to be able to find the money to pay for the aftermath of a tragedy, but would rather spend it on rebuilding after the fire than to pay up front for effective fire prevention. I can assure you that it is orders of magnitude less expensive to prevent the tragedy than to clean up after one. The problem of selling that to administrators and purse string holders is that effective training leads to effective crisis resolution – and how do you measure the cost of a tragedy that never happened? There’s the crux.

What I can tell you is that the death of Mary Knowlton (and all of the others at the back of the book was 100% preventable) So will the next senseless killing be preventable. But countless agencies at this very moment are not taking the concrete measures necessary to prevent them. For those who think they are doing all they can, I challenge them to have a tip to tail audit of their training practices. Much of the “scenario training” I see out there organized by agencies who have allotted a little money for it is dangerous to the point or recklessness. New York State shot a deputy in the face with a marking cartridge that had to be surgically removed because in their own training they didn’t think it was necessary to wear face masks. Naval Special Warfare (the SEALS) had a top tier warrior lose an eye for the same reason. Federal Air Marshals had a student lose a testicle because groin protection was not mandatory in their agency. I could go on for days. Add to all of this the fact that in police and military circles, a trainer will usually spend a couple of years in training, then the music starts and everyone grabs a new chair. Show me any professional sports franchise that would behave this way and expect to field a winning team.

It takes years to learn how to effectively shape future behavior in training, but if the person running the training doesn’t understand how people code experiences into their brains it is possible to be setting students up for future failure. Bad training can make jumpy students, and such jumpiness can be seen all across the country where officers over or under react to critical situations. From Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School to Minneapolis, Minnesota, to just last week in Fort Worth … officers that should not be on the job in the first place are unleashed on society, and some of the behaviors we see may actually be created in training. So in many cases it isn’t the technology that is inherently useful or inherently dangerous. It is the person that is using it, and who is using it on others. Training another human being to respond effectively to the dangers in our society requires highly trained, highly skilled and highly motivated trainers.

So the magic doesn’t live in the “tech” but there is definitely inherent danger in the “technician”. And as for the tech, it is frighteningly easy to acquire. ANYBODY can gain access to any of these training technologies these days, especially the munitions. You don’t even need to take a course anymore. Anybody can buy blanks. Anybody can buy marking cartridges. Anybody can buy or rent time with virtual reality simulators or in video arcade simulators. There are no restrictions on any of this by any of the manufacturers – and here’s the thing. There shouldn’t be. Just like there shouldn’t be a restriction on the owning, or responsible carriage, of fireams. For those that might have forgotten, keeping and bearing arms is not guaranteed in our constitution … it is only affirmed as a right that we have always had as a free people. The constitution merely states that the government cannot infringe upon or take away that right.

And so I am not lobbying here for any restrictions on technologies. But I am planting my feet and DEMANDING that those who are going to use any of those technologies must take on the obligation to study, and train. and learn how to use them to effectively. Only then can they keep themselves and others safe from the inherent dangers that come along with them.

Lee Coel did not accept that obligation. Lee Coel did not learn anything useful about safe and effective simulation training before he loaded his revolver with real ammunition and shot Mary Knowlton to death. Lee Coel is not a victim of a system that did not properly prepare him. You cannot outsource responsibility. Lee Coel committed a homicide. The courts somehow said it was excusable. I’m sorry, but sorry doesn’t count. And the more Lee Coels we have out there that are getting away with things like this, the more dead Marys there are going to be. Nobody in the justice system seems to get this.

Of all of the dead people at the back of my book, none of those perpetrators have been sent to jail. If they had, maybe Punta Gorda would have thought twice before letting an untrained officer shoot a poor elderly woman to death.

To the Knowltons, there is not a class I teach where I do not mention her name or show images of the final moments of her life. Please know that she lives on around the world as an example to the future Lee Coels that they have an obligation. A solemn obligation.

They owe it to Mary.

Kenneth Murray is the co-founder of SIMUNITION, the original creator of marking cartridges for opposed force training. As the director of training for SIMUNITION and the Armiger Police Training Institute he wrote the Best Practices Guidelines for Simulation Training and in 1994 published the book Training at the Speed of Life – The Definitive Textbook for Police and Military Simulation Training. The book and his training principles have been adopted by civilian, police and military groups worldwide as best practices and is a textbook at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center. He serves on several boards in the capacity of advisor for simulation topics, lectures world wide and runs practical classes on topics to include safe simulation training, as well as serving as an expert witness in cases where tragedy has occurred during simulation exercises. Mr. Murray is the founder of the Reality Based Training Association, an organization dedicated to world’s best practices for simulation training technologies and methodologies.

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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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