Mimesis Law
6 July 2020

Nutjob Cop Lee Coel Shoots Librarian? It’s a Gun Safety Issue

Aug. 12, 2016 (Fault Lines) – In June, I reported on a Florida police officer who pulled over an unarmed man on a bicycle and ordered his dog to eat him. A Facebook police reform group, Charlotte County Florida Cop Watch, was the first to release video of the October 30, 2015 incident, which shows the officer standing by and mocking his victim as the dog feasts on his arm and chest. The bike rider, later revealed to be Richard Schumacher, 26, can be heard begging the cop to call off his dog; the officer’s only response is to tell him to “stop resisting.”

By the time Schumacher’s ordeal was over, the K9 had mauled him for a total of two and a half minutes. The extraordinarily graphic video shows Schumacher twitching in a pool of his own blood, with large chunks missing from his upper body. The police officer, who at various points during the video can be heard congratulating his dog as it disfigures Schumacher, only called it off as other cops began to arrive on the scene. Schumacher, who was rushed to the hospital in critical condition, survived after undergoing nearly two weeks of “surgery and treatment.”

On August 9, this officer, Lee Coel of the Punta Gorda Police Department, shot and killed an elderly librarian during a role-playing exercise.

At a “Chamber Police Night” organized by the PGPD – an event designed to help non-cops understand and appreciate police work – Coel and the librarian, Mary Knowlton, 73, were selected to take part in a “shoot/don’t shoot” exercise. Knowlton was given the part of an armed “bad guy,” while Coel played a police officer in close proximity to the bad guy and faced with the decision of whether to shoot.

These exercises are par for the course at most citizen’s police academies. The point is to demonstrate the risks officers face when confronted with a suspect who may or may not be armed, and to make non-cops see the danger of taking too long to decide to shoot. When it’s the cop playing the “bad guy,” he’ll “shoot” his counterpart if he or she doesn’t immediately take action.

From a police PR standpoint, “shoot/don’t shoot” exercises are very useful. They make cops look heroic, teach non-cops to subscribe to the “split-second decision” trope trotted out after every officer-involved shooting, condition them to see every person shot by police as the simplistic armed, murderous suspect of academy lore, and emphasize the downside of hesitating when deciding whether to take someone’s life. Even better, up until now, these exercises have always been safe.

So it’s a shame that their effectiveness will be forever diminished by the actions of one rogue Florida cop.

For some inexplicable reason, the gun Coel used was loaded with live ammunition instead of blanks. And when he opened fire, it seems he didn’t immediately notice Knowlton was hit; according to eyewitness reports, Coel fired at least three times.* Knowlton was transported to a local hospital, where she was pronounced dead.

In the wake of Knowlton’s killing, the Punta Gorda PD, which initially refused to confirm Coel was the shooter, released a statement describing what happened as a “horrible accident.” At a press conference held the next day, Police Chief Tom Lewis told reporters the officers at Police Night believed the gun, which he said had been used in previous shoot/don’t shoot exercises, was loaded with blanks. For her part, a PGPD spokeswoman, Katie Heck, said that at the events she’d attended, police officers had used “simunition” guns incapable of firing live ammo. It remains to be seen which of these stories reflects department policy.

For the time being, the PGPD is committed to standing behind Coel; a statement posted to its Facebook page confirms that Coel, who in typically bland police-spokesman language is described as “the officer involved in the shoot/don’t shoot scenario,” has been placed on administrative leave while the department investigates.**

Spokespeople from other police departments in Florida and across the country were quick to virtue-signal condemn the Punta Gorda PD for its gun safety failings and try to salvage the reputation of their own events emphasize the security protocols in place at their citizen’s police academies. Different sources disagreed on the nature of these gun safety failings; one firearm instructor interviewed by The News-Press said officers should have made sure there was no live ammunition in the classroom and repeatedly checked the gun wasn’t loaded, while others, like spokespeople for the Tampa and St. Petersburg PDs and the National Citizens Police Academy Association, said the right move would have been to use only guns incapable of firing live ammo.

Police officers, except the ones who can’t tell donut crumbs from meth, aren’t total idiots, and if someone in the room had been adult enough to verify that the gun was loaded with blanks, Knowlton would still be alive. But the more important point is that the gun safety issue that every police spokesperson interviewed by the media saw as the cause of the shooting is, at best, a secondary concern. Even if someone had noticed that Coel’s gun was loaded with live ammo, it would at best have forestalled, not avoided, another disaster. The biggest problem of all is that the man who pulled the trigger that night was Lee Coel, still employed as a cop despite his abuse of Schumacher and a record of misconduct at the last PD to give him a job.

If you were surprised by Punta Gorda’s refusal to condemn Coel after Knowlton’s shooting, don’t be. After all, the PGPD backed him to the hilt after Schumacher’s mauling. When video of that incident went viral, the department equivocated in the face of media interest, then claimed it had already conducted an internal affairs investigation and cleared Coel of wrongdoing. Coel himself was not punished, though he was sent for counseling; deliciously, it was his dog that was suspended and sent for retraining.

And it turns out that Coel, despite his young age, is a career bad cop. Back in June, Chief Lewis revealed that Coel, who was hired by the PGPD in 2014 at the age of 26, left his previous job with the Miramar PD after he was suspended following two excessive-force complaints in April 2013.***

For our purposes, there’s a lesson here. Despite the juicy systemic failures that led to Coel still being employed as a police officer the night he shot and killed Mary Knowlton, the media chose to focus on an unrelated issue. Together with constitutionally clueless reporting, like the Miami Herald’s insinuation that Coel’s actions towards Schumacher were justified because Schumacher flipped him off, the mainstream sources reporting on this shooting did a good job of missing the point completely.

If police reform is to have a chance of success, we need to stay focused. Guns are a trendy topic. But guns didn’t kill a 73-year-old librarian. Instead, it was a man, someone profoundly unsuited to being a police officer.

*Perhaps he thought Knowlton was an unusually good actress? Or maybe he’s incapable of understanding when he hurts others. That would certainly explain the mauling.

**The statement goes on to say that Coel is “receiving assistance from [the] department and the Police Benevolent Association.”

***Cops getting hired by Department A after being fired from Department B is a popular subject at Fault Lines.

9 Comments on this post.

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  • Mary Bagi
    12 August 2016 at 9:27 am - Reply

    The death of Ms. Knowlton was a conflation of events that was rooted in negligence. Ms. Knowlton’s death was not an accident. Punta Gorda chose a cop with a troubled history to participate in their dog and pony show rather than one of their best cops. Coel’s negligence, from failing to ensure his gun was loaded with blanks to continuing to fire on Ms. Knowlton appears to be rooted in a sort contempt for decency. Horrible? Certainly. But I can’t conceive of this being an accident.

  • losingtrader
    12 August 2016 at 3:06 pm - Reply

    David, this is such as awesomely twisted story, the only thing I can say is you’ve succeeded in beating The Dreamin’ Demon website to posting it. That’s rare.

  • SomebodySomewhereSays
    12 August 2016 at 6:07 pm - Reply

    In the ’60s, this guy would’ve had to go freelance and become Ted Bundy II. In the 21st century, all he has to do is make it through the police academy and boom, he gets his sadist license, all nice and legal.

    Based on the responses from his department and the naivety of Ms. Knowlton’s family members, I bet he STILL won’t be fired.

    But at least we can publicly shame him. That must count for something. Thank God for the internet.

  • Eva
    12 August 2016 at 6:22 pm - Reply

    This whole tragic series of events goes far and beyond the point of just incredible and adds credence to the “truth is stranger than fiction” file.

    Part of me wonders how a person who was capable of such a dispicable act regarding the siccing the dog and allowing the animal to apparently maul that person pass the psych test that apparently law enforcement depts do as a condition of employment. Maybe that test needs some nudging because it sure failed big time.

  • Eric
    12 August 2016 at 7:53 pm - Reply

    I like that the police department’s response to the dog “incident” is “That was standard procedure.” as though we *shouldn’t* be concerned that the police department thinks it’s appropriate to order dogs to eat people who mouth off to police officers while the police officer taunts them.

  • Fault Lines Friday Fail
    26 August 2016 at 12:12 pm - Reply

    […] of the week, as delivered to you by the Fault Lines Contributors.  Last week’s “winner” was Officer Lee Coel for shooting a librarian during a gun “accident.” Check out this week’s top 5 fails and pick […]

  • Henry Chinery
    6 September 2016 at 7:46 pm - Reply

    “Perhaps he thought Knowlton was an unusually good actress?” People don’t fall down immediately when shot, especially when shot in rapid succession. Some don’t fall after the gun has been emptied. Officers are taught to fire until the threat is stopped. He may have emptied the gun had she not fallen after 3 shots. That being said, it was his responsibility to check the gun before it was used, so he is guilty of negligent manslaughter/homicide. Certainly not what he wanted to do that day. And why was a real gun used anyway? There should never be a loaded functioning firearm in a classroom and there are too many safe options designed to avoid this kind of incident.

  • AG Maura Healey Is Now The Queen of Massachusetts
    16 September 2016 at 9:19 am - Reply

    […] *But if anyone does figure it out, they’re welcome to contact the Punta Gorda Police Department. […]

  • No PAL of Mine
    31 January 2017 at 7:27 am - Reply

    […] Gober, who has been on paid administrative leave for months, resigned on January 25 after he met with Sheriff David Shoar, who informed him that the 7th Circuit State Attorney’s office is considering prosecuting him for organizing a scheme to defraud. In addition to the prospect of a felony charge, Gober is going to have to deal with the loss of his pension and generous salary: according to floridaopengov.org, he made nearly $70,000 in 2011, the last year on record. He’ll likely never be able to work as a lawman again, though in Florida, all things are possible. […]