Officer in Citizens Academy shooting says city singled him out


PUNTA GORDA, Fla. Attorneys for the police officer who lost his job over the fatal shooting of a retired librarian made their case Thursday that he should return to the force.

They insist Coel was unfairly singled out for the death of 73-year-old Mary Knowlton, who was killed in August during a “shoot-don’t shoot” training exercise as part of a citizens police academy.

“The truth is the city has decided to hold Officer Coel and no one else accountable,” Robert Brantley said. “And that’s why we’re challenging his termination.”

City officials heard the arguments during an appeal hearing that took place nearly six weeks after Coel was fired and five weeks after he sent a letter to City Manager Howard Kunik notifying him of his appeal.

Coel, who didn’t attend Thursday’s hearing, also faces a criminal charge of felony first-degree manslaughter. He’s pleaded not guilty to that.

Police Chief Tom Lewis, who’s charged with second-degree misdemeanor culpable negligence, is on paid administrative leave but hasn’t lost his job. Coel’s attorneys believe their client’s employment status should be the same as the chief’s.

“There were a variety of things that compounded on one another that resulted in this tragic accident,” Brantley said.

A Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigation found no evidence Coel intended to kill Knowlton. The bullets that Coel used were given to him by a supervising officer.

Still, Coel’s police career leading up to the shooting was checkered with questionable judgment, including a heavily publicized incident in which a police dog assigned to him mauled a bicycle rider. The rider sued the city and settled for $70,000.

A decision on Coel’s appeal isn’t expected until the end of May. Regardless, the shooting has had a profound effect on him, Brantley said.

“There’s no way an event like this doesn’t change your life, doesn’t impact your life,” Brantley said. “(Coel’s) life will never be the same, no matter what happens. This is a tragic event for several families.”


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