PUNTA GORDA – A video captured by a police car’s dashboard camera shows an officer’s K-9 partner latched onto a man’s underarm and pulling like it’s a game of tug-of-war. The man is yelling, telling the officer to get the dog off of him, while the officer directs the man to stop resisting and lay on his chest.
Armed with the footage, a lawyer is preparing to file a lawsuit against the Punta Gorda Police Department over the incident.
In October, Officer Lee Coel allegedly released the dog, named Spirit, after several attempts to stop and subdue Richard Schumacher, who was riding his bicycle around town without a headlight. The man purportedly continued to ride away from the cop car, refusing to heed Coel’s calls and flashing lights. The video shows Coel threatened to send the dog multiple times while following Schumacher on his bike. Coel allegedly released the dog when Schumacher had stopped his bike and was on one knee in front of the car with his hands up because he continued to ignore directions to lay face down.
Schumacher spent 11 days in the hospital, where he had surgery to repair damage done by the dog's teeth, and then went to jail for three months. Schumacher pleaded guilty to resisting arrest without violence and driving under the influence in exchange for dropping a third charge of fleeing and eluding. A police report accuses Schumacher of acting aggressively throughout the traffic stop.
Scott Weinberg, a partner at law firm Brown, Suarez, Rios, Weinberg, told the Florida Record that he’d told people months before the incident to keep an eye on the officer involved. Weinberg’s main practice is criminal defense and he has worked on numerous cases in which Coel was the arresting officer. Through those cases, he said he observed that Coel often acted improperly, such as interrogating someone without reading them their Miranda Rights. He got several cases tossed out as a result, he said.
He filed an intent to sue on Schumacher’s behalf and will spend the next six months gathering records to build a case.
Police Chief Tom Lewis issued a letter to the public explaining the situation after it got national attention. In the letter dated June 15, he said the video is graphic and doesn’t include the facts of the incident. He wrote:
“On Oct. 30, 2015, Canine Officer Lee Coel utilized his partner, K-9 Spirit, to apprehend Richard Schumacher during a traffic stop. The traffic stop was initially for riding a bicycle on a roadway without lights; however, Richard Schumacher did not yield to Officer Coel’s emergency lights or commands to stop riding away from him. Richard Schumacher, as seen in the edited video from Officer Coel’s dash camera, rides out of a well-lit gas station parking lot, fleeing from Officer Coel and riding several blocks away to a dark street before stopping and turning for a confrontation. Richard Schumacher subsequently displayed irrational behavior, refusing to comply with commands and punching the roadway with his bare fists. The development of this situation led to the determination that Richard Schumacher should be taken into custody.”
He went on to say that Coel “determined it was necessary” to use Spirit to bring Schumacher into custody. After the incident, Lewis and others reviewed the video, and then suspended Coel’s use of Spirit during an internal affairs investigation, which included an outside expert. Coel received counseling and more training after the review was complete. In addition, the department set stricter guidelines for when a dog can be used to apprehend a person.
While the chief wrote that this is the only time when Spirit made physical contact with a suspect, Weinberg said he’s heard from a handful of people who say Coel threatened to release the dog on them, as well.
“I think (Lewis is) doing what he thinks he needs to do to protect his police department and his officer,” Weinberg said of the letter to the community. “But frankly I think it’s ridiculous. … Even the chief admitted he used bad judgment.”
After the incident in October, Coel wrote a police report that seems to contradict the dashboard video, making the video evidence even more critical to Schumacher’s future suit, Weinberg said.
“Without a video, there’s nothing,” Weinberg said. “He lied in the report. And without a video there’s no way to confirm that he lied.”