Two officers disciplined in fatal St. Petersburg shooting

But all the other officers were justified in firing their guns in two fatal incidents involving mental cases.

Published October 31 2013
Updated November 1 2013

ST. PETERSBURG — No one has ever disputed that Lelann Cooley goaded officers into fatally shooting him on an early Saturday morning in September.

Cooley, authorities said, had sunk into depression and was suicidal. In the days before his death, he told his family he intended to make police do it by forcing them into a standoff.

On Sept. 7, after neighbors complained about noise, officers found the 46-year-old on his porch, a handgun at his side. He refused to follow their commands, and went inside his home at 3311 40th St. N and grabbed a rifle, which he then pointed at the officers. They shot and killed him.

Later that month. Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe said the officers —six in all — did nothing criminal.

But on Thursday, police Chief Chuck Harmon disciplined two of them, ruling that Officers Christopher Turbee and John Phifer violated the department's use of force policy.

Harmon said Cooley presented a real threat — but Turbee and Phifer did not actually see that threat and joined in only after hearing their fellow officers' shots. Neither man had a specific target, which is a rule at the agency.

"At no time during the discharge of their firearms did Officer Phifer or Officer Turbee have a clear sight of Mr. Cooley, nor did they observe a firearm being pointed at other officers," Harmon wrote in a memo Thursday. "They never actually witnessed a threat at all, and were behind sufficient cover."

Authorities were not able to determine if any of the six bullets Phifer shot or the 13 Turbee shot struck Cooley, police said. Cooley died of multiple gunshot wounds.

Turbee, 37, and Phifer, 34, were given employee notices, a written, formal form of discipline that stays in an employee's permanent file. They have been with the department 14 and 10 years, respectively.

The four other shooting officers were justified in their use of force that night, Harmon said.

In addition to the Cooley case, a shooting review board also was held for the Sept. 23 fatal shooting of Kenneth Sprankle, a 26-year-old transient who with a history of mental illness. Officer Damien Schmidt, 55, shot Sprankle on a rainy Monday evening, after finding Sprankle chasing people around downtown with an ax in his hand. Harmon said Schmidt, who also was cleared by McCabe, was justified in his use of force.

Contact Kameel Stanley at (727) 893-8643 or [email protected] Follow her @cornandpotatoes on Twitter.