PUNTA GORDA, Fla. -- The Punta Gorda officer accused of using excessive force when dealing with a drunk man may have had a history of force complaints, but was still hired by the department.
Officer Lee Coel received backlash online for siccing his K-9 partner, Spirit, on a man who was not complying with a traffic stop. The man wouldn't get down on his knees when asked several times and gave officer Coel the finger. After several minutes of escalation, the man, Richard Schummacher, refused to get on his face before officer Coel released Spirit on him.
Fox 4 spoke with Punta Gorda Police Chief Tom Lewis, who said Coel has received counseling and new training since the incident and the department has changed its policies on how K-9s are used. Coel was not suspended because he did not break any department policies at the time.
When asked if Officer Coel had a history of complaints when it came to excessive force, he had a clean record with their department.
However, he was hired after parting ways with the Miramar Police Department after not passing his probation period. "My understanding is there was an incident regarding the use of force in an arrest," said Chief Lewis. "There's a video of that as well. We viewed that video during his background investigation and in the totality of the circumstances, we decided at the time to hire him."
Other Southwest Florida agencies have similar stories. Deputy Trevor Lehman landed in the spotlight in 2013, after an incident in which he struck a man in the head during a traffic arrest. The incident led to his termination from the Fort Myers Police Department. He was later cleared and rehired by FMPD, but he later resigned in July after he was involved in a bar fight in Cape Coral. Months later, he was hired as a Lee County Deputy.
Fox 4 reached out to the Gulf Coast Police Benevolent association to find out how officers are able to jump from agency to agency with excessive force complaints. The two officers mentioned have been cleared, so they don't present a liability to any agency. "Often times when there are complaints, they are just that...complaints," said Matt Sellers, president of the PBA. "Most police departments thoroughly investigate complaints and if you look deeply into each incident individually, you'll find out that complaints are often more times than not, frivolous and unfounded."
Sellers said it is highly unlikely an agency would hire someone with a legitimate high liability. "It's often times what police departments are trying to avoid."