When Force-on-Force Training Goes Wrong

Mary Knowlton died due to a series of negligent mistakes.

The evolution was a force-on-force demonstration in a public relations exercise that’s coming to a city near you, if it hasn’t already: “Citizens’ Police Academy,” where the cops teach ordinary citizens things about a cop’s job that your ordinary engaged citizen doesn’t know, unless he knows a lot of cops.

Citizen Mary Knowlton of Punta Gorda, FL, a retired librarian, was playing “cop” in an exercise designed to show how little time a cop has to make the shoot/no-shoot decision. Officer Lee Coel was playing felon, and he got the drop on Knowlton, firing several shots (some stories have suggested six) from his training/simulator pistol.

Except, it wasn’t his training pistol. It was his service pistol, as everyone in the room immediately realized, in shock. (With the apparent exception of Coel, or he’d have stopped at one shot).

On Aug. 9, Mary Knowlton, a 73-year-old retired librarian, was participating in a police night hosted by the Punta Gorda Chamber of Commerce when Punta Gorda police officer Lee Coel, 28, shot and killed her with a weapon meant for training.

Knowlton was acting as a victim in a “shoot/don’t shoot” scenario, and Coel — who was playing the “bad guy” — shot her several times.

Knowlton was rushed to the hospital, where, to make an inverted paraphrase of Bones McCoy, she needed a miracle worker, not a doctor. She died there.

With no conceivable justification for such a simply prevented fatal screwup, the town fathers fell over themselves in haste to settle the civil case.

Punta Gorda city council members approved a $2.06 million settlement with the Knowlton family in November, nearly three months after the shooting.

Lee Coel does the perp walk. He could get 30 years’ prison.

The criminal case has been taking longer, but that’s the nature of criminal cases, especially against cops.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement conducted an investigation into the officer-involved shooting and submitted its findings to the state attorney’s office.

Punta Gorda Police Chief Tom Lewis and officer Lee Coel will both face charges in the shooting death of Mary Knowlton, who was accidentally killed during a citizen’s police academy demonstration in August.

Coel has been charged with felony manslaughter and Lewis with culpable negligence, a misdemeanor. Coel has been placed under arrest. Lewis will not be arrested but was given a summons to appear in court.

Coel could get up to 30 years in prison and a $10,000 fine, Steven Russell, state attorney for the 20th Judicial Circuit, said. The chief could receive up to 60 days in jail.

via 2 cops charged in Florida woman’s accidental shooting death.

We’re not sure of why they’re keelhauling the chief, but we can’t argue with the charges against the cop. This kind of gross and consequential negligence is one reason why that felony manslaughter charge is in the statute book.

If you’re not paranoid about a training gun that looks and feels like your service firearm, if you’re not constantly checking and double-checking, and if you’re not still observing the three most fundamental rules even when you know the training aid can’t possibly hurt anybody, well, then the difference between your situation and the much less enviable one in which Lee Coel finds himself is not dependent on anything but happenstance, chance, fortune… luck.

Complacency and disrespect for training aids are always freighted with the possibility of a bad shoot like this. Be alert for those hazardous attitudes.

42 thoughts on “When Force-on-Force Training Goes Wrong

  1. TRX

    One shot would be a fatal mistake.

    Six shots in a controlled training environment… that guy should never have been on the street. What kind of disaster would he have been under actual stress?

    1. whomever

      “One shot would be a fatal mistake.
      Six shots in a controlled training environment…”

      I wondered about that as well. Was it supposed to be firing blanks, or simunitions, or one of the recoil-simulating airsoft guns? It seems odd that you’d any of those in a citizens academy setting.

      As an aside, TFB had an article a few days ago on M-15 trainers the Air Force uses called ‘Cobolt Trainers’. They are actual rifle parts, but with the trigger well and barrel filled somehow. The article states “The Trainers can be ordered with either blue or black furniture” and from the pics may or may not have an orange tip. Having a situation where the training rifle may or may not have blue furniture and may or may not have an orange tip seems to provide … opportunities for tragic mistakes to be made.

      1. Sommerbiwak

        Yup. It is a possible problem. Though from the comments of former USAF basic attendees over on TFB all the training guns are with blue furniture. And for dragging them through mud and marching around they are good enough imho. No need to damage real firearms and the potential of these being stolen. In my basic we used our rifles for shooting blanks only apart from carrying them. For qualifications we had a set of well maintained and zeroed G3. (me being german and all.)

        Pertaining the article at hand. I think a plastic or rubber blue or red gun is enough for training IMHO. Saying pew pew or bang bang is much safer than accidentally grabbing a real loaded firearm. Which makes me wonder why there had been one such at the event in the first place.

        Sad that such a good idea like teaching average citizens what it is like to enforce law, is overshadowed by this. :-(

      2. Hognose Post author

        One of the political generals — Petraeus or McChrystal, I forget — survived, barely, being shot in the chest with an “empty” M4 in a training mishap, while with the Rangers.

        1. Mike_C

          >One of the political generals[…] survived […] being shot in the chest with an “empty” M4
          Chalk up one more in the “reasons to hate 5.56” column….

          More seriously,
          >We’re not sure of why they’re keelhauling the chief
          It might have to do with Lee Coel apparently being a known problem child; if that was the case, why was he even employed by the PGPD, much less in a role interacting with the public.

        2. Jim Scrummy

          Petraeus. He was medevac-ed to Vanderbilt University Hospital. So I guess on his 20th anniversary of this mishap, he had “relations” with an Army Reserve Major and fellow USMA alum…got to celebrate somehow in Afghanistan.

          Plus he and Stan “the man” hate that civilians own guns, particularly those evil M4geries.

          1. Hognose Post author

            Both of these guys are five-star dumbasses. I note that Petraeus is the one who gave the document to the floozie, but the floozie took the bigger career hit for it… Petraeus is still trying to find his way to political Caesardom, and knows that as a Democrat all is forgiven (viz. various Kennedys), so he can run with the anti-gun thing.

            McChrystal is a genius… you don’t even have to ask him, listen to him five minutes and he’ll tell you. Three times. But he wasn’t smart enough to figure out that the Rolling Stone reporter he buddied up to would get a kick out of sliming him and his staff… and they gave him boxcar loads of ammo. You can’t exactly blame the report, it’s in the nature of a scorpion.

            For a guy who is impressed beyond narcissism with his own excellence, he’s dumber than a kettlebell.

          2. Kirk

            On behalf of kettlebells everywhere, I wish to lodge a protest. Using them as a comparison to McChrystal is both insulting and degrading to honest cast iron. You owe the kettlebells of the world an apology, good Sir!

          3. Tennessee Budd

            Moreover, Petraeus’ surgeon was Dr. Bill Frist. Despite my dislike for Frist’s (dis)service to my state in the political field, he is, or was, acknowledged as a top-tier surgeon.
            Regarding the subject of the post, there are too many apparent mistakes to begin, but the biggest one to me is why the hell a functional firearm was even present in the room/training area (I vaguely remember the report of this incident, & something is nagging at me, making me think it might have been outdoors; I may well be wrong).

          4. Hognose Post author

            And if the point of the exercise was to help citizens understand how deadly an armed felon can be… why not give the citizen the sim gun, and you take the rubber training knife? ISTR that some cop shop did this with a number of their Black Criminal Lives Matter critics and one, at least, came away educated. “I was totally wrong,” he told the press. (Still, it was a very nervy move on the part of that chief or sheriff.

  2. Simon

    Police officers are generally perfectly friendly unless you are busy doing something obviously illegal, but they do have a tendency to resent being told something (more than the average person). I was working at the filling station on Sunday evening and a police car came in to stock up on snacks. One came in to buy the amazingly healthy choices we have, the other stayed out on the forecourt to have a smoke.

    I went out to explain that this was a fuel station and you do not generally smoke in front. The boss does not like it and if he sees it on the video tapes then I have to listen to boring stuff. I said there is an ashtray round the side and he could smoke there. He got all huffy and said that he was not going to drop the cigarette end there anyway. I had to ask him 3 times before he was prepared to back down and walk the 20 metres to the ashtray.
    Maybe the cop in question is like that and so none of his colleagues bothers to check what he is doing since it is a major incident if you try to tell him anything.

    1. DSM

      I know this mentality quite well. My initial goal after doing my time in the service as a Security Policeman was to go back home and be a state trooper. Then I shared too many posts with a SuperCop and decided against it.

  3. DSM

    There are no live firearms in a training scenario. Full stop. Don’t pass go, don’t collect $200. My assumption is that he got excited to show off his finely honed and superior skills in front of people.

    We used Simunitions and the EST machine extensively in my last unit. The status of the training weapons were double checked by multiple people. The Sim rounds were controlled at all times. Ammo pouches were searched beforehand to make sure no one had loose left over from range day or whatever. No on-duty personnel were even allowed in the area let alone do any training.

  4. Texas Dude

    Force-on-force training, especially in preparation for the sort of close range encounters that cops face, is a very valuable tool.

    To have training value, the scenarios must have a goal and have a script, with good role players. They also MUST have very rigid and unyielding safety protocols in place.

    Correct safety protocols should include, at a minimum, creating a “sterile” training area, barring all live weapons and ammunition from the training area (any weapon must be a dedicated force-on-force weapon or one with a conversion kit installed rendering it incapable of firing live ammo) , pat down searches of all person, their weapons and magazines prior to entering the training area, searches of anyone who leaves and re-enters for any reason, mandated PPE for the training events and a thorough safety brief regarding standoff distances, what weapons and munitions can be used in the training scenarios and available force options.

    When training other entities or personnel not familiar with force-on-force training, we use more thorough safety protocols.

    The “manual” for this was written by one of the inventors of Simunitions. Every page or so, in the margins, he listed the details of a safety protocol failure that resulted in serious injury or death to a participant.

    These incidents used to be more frequent but the LE community has mostly gotten these down to about a death a year. It is still too many, but they are almost always cops and I haven’t read about one yet that was not a result of failing to adhere with industry standard training protocols. Prison is appropriate in these cases.

    1. Cap'n Mike

      TD is correct. The training gun that fires the simunition rounds is incapable of firing live ammo.
      The only way this could have happened is if Cole had his duty weapon in his holster instead of the training gun.
      Completely inexcusable.

  5. Bill T

    Simon, Cops, usually Alpha Males or worse Alpha Females, don’t like being corrected in any capacity, even for their and others’ safety. Cops are not the only ones this fits by any means.
    The rules of handling firearms should be strictly adhered to except where extreme safety measures are employed. IE NO Operable forearms allowed in or near the training area checked often by everyone.
    Even “dry-fire” practice with your regular firearm, there should be NO AMMO in the same room or area, checked over and over again. Even so, humans are error prone and the least arrogance (Alpha Male-Female) multiplies this.

      1. Hognose Post author

        Funny thing is, I didn’t even catch the typo but read it as “firearms…” both in the comment and in this correction, and so I thought you were correcting capitalization, and was thinking, “the NO deserves the emphasis,” but then reread your first comment. Now I am “woke” to the error, to abuse a current meme.

  6. Ben C

    I recall hearing something about this officer having problems with a previous department before being hired at this one. Something along the lines of “resigned before he could be fired” in the news.

    Perhaps the message to the chief is “you hired a known problem and failed to supervise him, it’s your a$$ now.” Which I really can’t argue with either.

  7. Trone Abeetin

    I’ve had a lot of “oh F%$K” moments in my life, but I can only imagine how that one played out.

  8. Eric

    Where was the training officer or range safety officer? No live firearms or live ammunition are allowed for these training scenarios. Weapons are personally checked by the training or range safety officer before the scenario is put in motion, which includes magazines dropped and emptied, and taken out of any duty belt pouch and pockets. Period.

    Blue/red guns would have been the preferred training weapon here.

    I am sure training records will be part of the investigation. Screwed if they did not receive proper training; screwed if they did and did not adhere to it.

  9. Keith

    It’s an unfortunate tragedy that should not have happened. To me the greater impact is if this stops such efforts to get the community involved in police work. If you have never been close to it (both parents were cops) or worked in it it’s a world you know nothing about. You veterans can say the same thing about the military.

    Keep your powder dry and your faith in God.

  10. Kirk

    There are a lot of people in the police and military hierarchies who really, really do not belong in positions of power and authority. And, yet… We keep putting them there.

    Selection, training, and ongoing promotion criteria very badly need to be rethought and reimplemented.

  11. Connie

    I cannot comprehend the carelessness of people handling guns, especially trained ones. I was raised in the Midwest & we had gun safety classes in 2nd grade and I have five brother that hunt no one has had such an incident because checking your gun before you use it each time is imperative & may cost another their life!

  12. Connie

    I cannot comprehend the carelessness of people handling guns, especially trained ones. I was raised in the Midwest & we had gun safety classes in 2nd grade and I have five brother that hunt no one has had such an incident because checking your gun before you use it each time is imperative & may cost another their life!

  13. Aesop

    Too stupid to carry a gun?
    (Hell, too stupid to walk and chew gum.)
    Let’s make him a police officer!
    What could possibly go wrong?

    Clearly another high achiever who slipped through the recruitment net of TSA, and somehow ended up in actual law enforcement, and who has now killed more innocent people than most of Punta Gorda’s felon population.

    I hope he gets a nice long stretch in pound-you-in-the-keester prison, to contemplate his failings, as both officer and human being.
    And kudos for going after the chief, but what about the training supervisor in charge of the evolution?
    Or was Chief Malfunction doing double duty that night, thus culpable de facto, and not just ex officio?

  14. dave douglass

    Wow! And the public has even more reason to distrust police. This was such an epic mistake, you would expect a child to make, not a veteran officer. I’m also certain, it’s not taught in police academies to empty your clip to stop a suspect. This moron should do at least 5 years for excessive stupidity!

    1. Gray

      The term “a veteran officer” always puts me on-guard.

      If 10 years, is it ten year’s worth of experience, or one year’s worth ten times?

  15. Earl Fisher

    “We’re not sure why they’re keelhauling the chief…..” Really?

    Any scenario in which a live weapon can be present at such a training exercise, whether used or not, is due to negligence on the part of man in charge of the training. There should be no way a trainer could purposely or accidentally have his service weapon in that location. Safeguards are written into the training manual to prevent the possibility of such accidents. Yes, the chief should be charged with negligent homicide in this case, as his negligence in not securing the exercise, or in not appointing a competent exercise operator, is just as much a cause of death as the negligence of the man pulling the trigger.

  16. Alan Ostregs

    Are the officers required to carry their service revolvers at all time when on duty? 9my guess is yes). it seems that the officer instinctively drew his service weapon Maybe the procedure was not thought out … The officer should of been required to “Safe” his weapon, and use that instead of the training weapon, or just locked it away for the duration of the class. As to the number of shots fired, only he can tell us why he fired 6 rounds.

    1. Hognose Post author

      I’m not sure about the six rounds… that’s “word on the street” in FL LE circles. He definitely fired multiple shots because the vic took multiple hits but I can’t swear to how many that is.

  17. Simon

    @Bill, Yes I have also seen it often and have learned to avoid females in positions of power (over me). Still, no way can I back down to him when I am working.

  18. Slow Joe Crow

    My take is that the chief is being charged because of command responsibility for the shooter, as well as overall responsibility for setting up the exercise. I support this since in addition to addressing his direct failure it sends a message to every police chief in Florida that if their officers screw up they can face consequences.

  19. Bill Robbins

    Too many stupid ideas to count in this fatal mishap, starting with conducting this particular type of community relations activity in the first place.

  20. Tam

    Apparently they usually used “redneck sims rounds” (primed cases and wax bullets) with the revolver. Nobody seems to know where the live ammo came from, last I read.

    1. Hognose Post author

      Apparently, the cop was one of those guys who had bounced from another jurisdiction in training. And some lawyer was already suing that department over him having a K9 maul said mouthpiece’s client, Dindu Nuffin. (That doesn’t add up. Why would a rookie in training be a K9 handler? Not logical or the way I’ve ever seen it done):


      For me the more interesting takeaway is that, right after the accident, the lady’s son was saying he forgave the cop “because that’s what she would want” or words to that effect. And the Chief? Was saying he took full responsibility, acting like a stand-up guy. Interesting that he is charged, albeit with misdemeanors.

      Guys that bounce around agencies because they have to be cops but ran into problems at a previous cop job… I dunno. Some of them work out, but most of them leave a trail of trouble. Whether it’s their fault or not, I can’t say. I would advise a guy like that (it’s mostly men, although I recall one case of a woman who was a real Officer Typhoid Mary) to just hang up the cop dreams and hire on with UPS or something. Everybody wins when a guy who’s not cut out for that job doesn’t keep doing it.

    2. John

      Tam’s right, the officer didn’t accidentally draw his service weapon. He was using a firearm specifically designated by the department for that exercise. A working revolver.
      That gun was supposed to be loaded with blanks. The chief originally said he didn’t know there was live ammunition available for it, but in a follow-up admitted that one of the changes they needed to make was to “require all lethal weapons and ammunition be stored separate from less lethal weapons and ammunition” (http://www.fox4now.com/news/4-in-your-corner/punta-gorda-police-chief-announces-department-changes-in-response-to-academy-shooting).

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  22. Michael Bane

    Running a big sim is an ulcer-inducing event. For run of the mill THE BEST DEFENSE stuff we’ve gone exclusively to AirSofts and CGI in blast & sound. On a bigger sim where blanks and/or Sim rounds are involved, we use the Sim protocols outlined by Texas Dude above. Janich, Seeklander and I have a lot of F-on-F experience and are all obsessive about sterilizing the room — and keeping it sterile — and maintaining control of the Sim/blanked guns. Ideally, we want to put the training guns in the hands of the role-players just before we spin the sim up, then recapture the gun as soon as the action is finished. Our policy is that EVERYONE on the set gets to check the weapons we’re using for the sim BEFOREHAND.

    This might sound trite, but complacency does kill. And handling guns at the level and with the frequency many of us do can breed that complacency. I would like to say that I can’t even imagine how this incident happened, but unfortunately, I can see it all too clearly.

  23. Jack

    15 seconds on amazon yielded blue training guns starting at $25…how the heck does it even occur to any professional to allow or worse designate a real weapon in training like this?

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