"The Florida Police Chiefs Association has been closely watching the situation unfolding in Punta Gorda, where a tragedy at a community demonstration in August claimed the life of an elderly resident, Mrs. Mary Knowlton. From the very onset, our hearts have been with that entire community, the family of Mrs. Knowlton and the members of the Punta Gorda Police Department. We understand Mrs. Knowlton was a treasured member of the community and our deepest sympathies remain with those she left behind.
“We are also closely monitoring the charges filed against Chief Tom Lewis in relation to this tragic accident. We are deeply concerned as to the implications this case could have for law enforcement leaders across the nation.
"We encourage 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."
Chief of Police Tom Lewis faces a misdemeanor charge for culpable negligence.
Investigators say officer Lee Coel accidentally shot and killed Mary Knowlton with a gun he thought was loaded with blanks.
A former neighbor of Knowlton reacted to the new charges.
“I think it's good news,” Brian Courtice said. “There is no excuse for having a loaded firearm like that.”
During Coel’s short time as a police officer he has had a less than stellar record. A few years before the shooting of the the 73-year-old retired librarian, Coel was accused of using excessive force with his police dog in Oct. 2015. Coel resigned from another police agency in 2013 for failing to satisfactorily complete a field training program.
Given Coel’s past Courtice questions the chief’s judgment.
“Given the complaints about the officer prior to even being hired and what happened with the dog incident putting that particular officer into that position I think I can see some negligence there,” Courtice said.
The accidental shooting took place in perhaps the unlikeliest of places, inside a police department.
Knowlton was a retired librarian from Minnesota, and attended the event with the Punta Gorda Chamber of Commerce. She was a member of the tight-knit group helping them as they built a new public library.
“She walked by [the] window and knocked every single day,” John Wright, the President of the Punta Gorda Chamber of Commerce, said.
The event was exclusive to members of the chamber. A total of 36 people showed up, according to Wright. He said volunteers for the training section of the two hour program were chosen at random.
Two stickers were placed in two of 50 booklets scattered on tables throughout the room. When the chief asked who had a sticker, one woman raised her hand, no one else.
“Mary Knowlton reached behind her to one of the empty seats and there was the sticker inside it,” Wright said. “She stood next to me as she was walking into the scenario, and said, ‘I do not know what I am doing, but this is going to be fun.’"
Wright said those were the last words he heard from her. Watching as the training simulation started were 36 of Knowlton’s co-workers, her friends, the officers holding the event and her husband Gary. No one knew Knowlton would only have a few more precious seconds to live.
Lewis said Officer Coel accidentally fired a live round during a "shoot / don't shoot" scenario. Police said the scenario is intended to demonstrate the decision-making process when using "simulated lethal force in a live role play."
Knowlton was supposedly playing the intruder. At some point, Coel squeezed back the trigger on the revolver firing three bullets into Knowlton’s chest. The chief said the gun had been used before in previous scenarios, but no one knew it had live ammunition in it instead of blanks.
“When she went down I looked her straight in the eye, and I saw that anguish in her eye,” Wright said. “And when she hit the floor, I hoped...I hoped she wasn't feeling any pain.”
Knowlton was rushed to the hospital where she later died.
Her son Steven asked the same question many are: How could this happen?
“My thoughts are, why was she in that situation? Why wasn't somebody else, another cop, playing that role? Why was anybody even aiming a gun at anybody?" Knowlton asked.
According to information released in the 2015 excessive for case, Coel was dealing with a drunk man back in Oct. 2015. That man, Richard Schumacher, later sued the department. Coel has a history of force complaints, but was still hired by the department.
Coel received backlash online for siccing his K-9 partner, Spirit, on a man who was not complying with a traffic stop. The man wouldn't get down on his knees when asked several times. After several minutes of escalation, the man, Schumacher, refused to get on his face before officer Coel released Spirit on him.
At the time, Lewis said Coel received counseling and new training since the incident, and the department has changed its policies on how K-9s are used. Coel was not suspended because he did not break any department policies at the time.
If convicted Coel faces a maximum of 30 years in prison. The misdemeanor conviction for Lewis carries a 60 day maximum sentence in jail.
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