Lawyer: Punta Gorda PD missed warnings, waged counter-publicity campaign for problem officer

Tina Jensen reports

- A lawyer says the Punta Gorda Police Department knew officer Lee Coel was "a problem and nobody wanted to fire him.”

Coel accidentally shot and killed a woman during a citizens academy role-playing exercise, but this incident is the latest in what Attorney Scott Weinberg says is a string of missed warnings.

Weinberg says he went into a meeting with Punta Gorda Police Chief Tom Lewis with one goal in mind: He wanted officer Lee Coel off the streets.

The meeting did not yield the results he wanted, but he kept voicing his concerns. 

“I know the police chief, he’s a very good guy,” Weinberg said on the Bubba the Love Sponge show in June. “But I think the more publicity this gets, the more likely that this officer will no longer be able to hurt anybody else.”

Two months after Weinberg uttered those words, Coel shot and killed a 73-year-old Mary Knowlton at a Citizens Police Academy.

Weinberg, who is planning to file suit for the incident, says the department had numerous opportunities to prevent Tuesday’s shooting death of Mary Knowlton, but missed them.

“Everybody knew this officer was a problem, and nobody wanted to fire him," Weinberg said. "The problem is not just in this local police department; the problem is nationwide,” he said. “For some reason, being a police officer is almost the hardest job to get fired from, which makes no sense. It should be the easiest job to get fired from because we are putting so much trust in them."

From Vet Tech to K-9 Officer

Before Coel shot Knowlton, and before his K-9’s attack sent an unarmed, barefoot bicyclist to the hospital last October, and before he lost his job at the Miramar Police Department after receiving excessive force complaints, he was a tech at a local veterinary hospital in Davie.

In 2010, Lee Coel was a new grad from an Iowa college with a degree in pre-veterinary medicine. He had just relocated to Florida when he met some officers from the local police department who would bring their canines in for care. 

“Myself and other members of the K-9 unit, after some years, finally convinced Lee to put his application in with our department,” said one Miramar officer’s letter of recommendation, included in Coel’s personnel file. “I feel strongly that Lee Coel would be an asset to your department. I am very saddened that he left.”  

Nine months after Lee Coel had started with the Miramar Police Department, he was told to report to Internal Affairs. In April 2013, detectives told him he was the target of an investigation for two allegations of excessive force. He was placed on leave immediately, according to letter he included in his application with the Punta Gorda Police Department.   

“I was stripped of my badge, gun and other police paraphernalia and placed on administrative leave,” he wrote. “It was as if my heart and soul had been ripped out of my chest, unjustly. I knew that I had never used any amount of force which was not justified.”

A week later, his employment with Miramar ended. His state law enforcement record says he “failed to satisfactorily complete” his probationary year.

Still, Coel’s application was filled with a dozen letters of recommendation from people identifying themselves as instructors or supervisors with Miramar Police Department. One says he made more than 100 arrests during his short time on patrol.

Punta Gorda Police Department hired him on. Three months in, they chose him to be department’s K-9 officer. 

By 2014, he was training with the Punta Gorda Police Department, and had been selected as the department’s K-9 unit. His annual review notes the trophies he brought back to the K-9 department from national competitions.

Similar to his time in Miramar, his arrest stats were high: He’d filed more than 300 charges in a year and a half. Weinberg says that’s where he first grew concerned about Coel, saying he saw a pattern of aggressive tactics in his arrests.

Records provided by Weinberg, but not independently verified, show more than a third of those charges were dismissed by prosecutors.

“That’s an astronomically high number and those cases are being dismissed very early on… which means people are seeing he is violating people’s rights, illegally searching them and arresting them for bogus reasons,” he said.

Attempts to reach Coel for comment were unsuccessful. At a press conference on Thursday, Chief Lewis would not respond to questions.

“Stop, or I’ll send the dog!”

One night last October, Coel was out on patrol with his K-9 when, according to his report, he saw a man riding a bike without lights. 

Dashcam video shows Coel following 25-year-old Richard Schumacher, flipping on his emergency lights, and yelling. 

“Yo! Sir! On the bike! Stop, or I’ll send the dog!” Coel is heard saying.

Schumacher, who was barefoot, kept pedaling. Coel revved his engine and kept following him.  

Weinberg says Coel’s first words set the tone for the rest of the policing encounter.

“Not, ‘How are you doing sir, what are you doing sir, why don't you have a light on your bicycle?” Weinberg said, adding that Schumacher was slow to obey Coel’s commands, and was reluctant to lie on the street - but did not pose threat warranting what could have been a deadly encounter. “My client, in no way, threatened that officer, and he decided to send the dog on him."

Schumacher was mauled by Coel’s K-9 for two minutes. In the video, Coel is heard telling Schumacher to stop resisting, while Schumacher screams in agony. Coel gives commands for the K-9 to keep attacking.

The injuries sent Schumacher to the hospital for two weeks. Coel was cleared in Punta Gorda’s internal affairs investigation of the incident, though the department says it has since changed its policies to prevent such an encounter. Coel was not disciplined for the incident and maintained his position as a K-9 officer.

After Weinberg went public with his concern, he says Punta Gorda waged a counter-publicity campaign. A few weeks after the dashcam of the K-9 attack was released, PGPD posted a photo on its Facebook page showing Coel with a dog it says he rescued. A few weeks later, Coel is shown in a video with his K-9 on a helicopter ride.

"For what purpose that would serve, I have no idea, other than to get people to like their Facebook page and say, 'oh, isn't that nice,'” Weinberg said. “I assume that's why he was involved in this training program as well, because they were trying to soften his image."

Lt. Katie Heck, a spokeswoman for the department responded to FOX 13’s requests for comment about the allegation by stating Coel had participated in the Citizen Police Academy before questions arose about the K-9 attack.

She also said there was a reason Coel is featured in several posts on their Facebook page: "I would note that he is assigned to our canine unit which does serve a large community relations role.”

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