Days after a citizen police academy drill went horribly wrong, the Punta Gorda police department has grief counselors available but no new answers about how a 73-year-old librarian was shot to death during a training demonstration.
Mary Knowlton was shot and killed by Punta Gorda police officer Lee Coel during a “shoot/don’t shoot” exercise in which Coel played the “bad guy” and Knowlton posed as a cop. Witnesses who watched her stagger and fall after Coel fired at her thought she was just committed to her role — until they saw blood. Instead of the usual fake gun or blank rounds, Coel fired a real gun with real bullets.
Punta Gorda Police Chief Tom Lewis addressed the media Thursday morning and called this “a devastating time” for Knowlton’s family, the police department and the community. He took full responsibility for the tragedy, which happened after he opened the program with a presentation about the department.
“I am 100 percent accountable for the actions of our department,” he said.
Still unanswered: Why did Coel use a real gun? Why was no one aware it was loaded with live ammunition?
Lewis announced grief counselors have been dispatched to the Knowlton family, witnesses, officers and the community.
Also discussed was a pending civil lawsuit against Coel, who ordered his K-9, Spirit, to attack a bicyclist he stopped for not using a light on his bike. The man required surgery for his wounds. Lewis said the department has a K-9 expert examine the details of the case.
Coel is on administrative leave, Lewis said, while the Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigates. The FDLE will take several weeks, or up to a month, to come up with its conclusion on the “active, ongoing investigation,” Lewis said. Until more information is available the Punta Gorda police will stop addressing the media.
“Our intention is to be completely transparent,” Lewis said.
Neither he nor Punta Gorda police spokeswoman Lt. Katie Heck answered questions after the conference.