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
arriving on the scene. Schumacher, who was rushed to the hospital in critical condition, survived after undergoing nearly two weeks of “surgery and treatment.” During 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
too long when deciding whether to take somebody’s life. Even better, up until now, it appears these exercises have always been safe.
So it’s a
pity 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
appears he didn’t immediately notice that 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
north 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 when they take part in citizen’s academies. Different sources disagreed on the exact 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
issues that every police spokesperson interviewed by the media see 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 Punta Gorda police officer despite his abuse of Schumacher and a record of misconduct at the last PD to employ him.
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.
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