Punta Gorda confirms ouster of police chief

PUNTA GORDA, Fla. Tom Lewis is out as chief of police, the city confirmed Wednesday.

City Manager Howard Kunik sent Lewis a memo dated Wednesday.

“After careful consideration of all the information, I have decided to discharge you of your employment with the City of Punta Gorda, effective August 30, 2017,” Kunik said in the memorandum.

Kunik said he received more than 100 letters, emails and visits from those who supported Lewis over the last two months.

“Tom is a fine man and I truly wish him the best at his next endeavor,” Kunik said. “However, I cannot retain a leader based on character alone.”

Lewis had been on paid administrative leave since the day after he was charged with culpable negligence in the August 2016 citizens academy shooting. Officer Lee Coel, who was later fired, shot and killed retired librarian Mary Knowlton in a “shoot-don’t shoot” training exercise.

Lewis was acquitted of that charge, but the city never allowed him to return to work as it conducted an internal investigation. Coel is months away from trial on his first-degree manslaughter charge.

The investigation revealed the department’s protocols in the citizens academy weren’t as safe as those in other trainings, according to Kunik.

“Overall the report demonstrates a casual approach to citizen safety during demonstrations,” he said. “What I found was a non-standardized approach that created risk for everyone involved.”

WINK News livestreamed Kunik’s remarks in a Wednesday afternoon press conference:

Captain Jason Ciaschini has been serving as interim chief since Lewis went on leave, but the city will conduct a national search and hire a new chief from outside the department, Kunik said.

Lewis said Tuesday that Kunik had already let him know he was fired, but city spokeswoman Sandi Poreda insisted no decision had been made.

Kunik said he told Lewis on Monday he would not allow him to return to the department but tried to convince him to resign. When it became clear Lewis would not resign, Kunik said, he decided to fire him.

Kunik and Lewis first had conversations about whether he would resign or be fired Friday, Kunik said.

Lewis presented the idea of returning to the department as a road lieutenant instead of as chief, but Kunik rejected that offer because having a former chief in a lesser position would create “confusion, conflict and division” within the department, Kunik said.

The city’s police pension board will determine that status of money Lewis has paid into retirement benefits, Kunik said.

Below is the memo formally notifying Lewis of his dismissal: