Manatee sheriff's captain retires after investigation finds he pulled gun on employee

ejohnson@bradenton.comMarch 7, 2013 

MANATEE -- A Manatee County Sheriff's Office captain is retiring after the completion of an internal investigation that found he carelessly un-holstered his handgun in the presence of another employee.

About 4 p.m. on Jan. 28, Lt. William Vitaioli entered the District Three office. Vitaioli spoke with the executive secretary briefly, then walked to the doorway of Capt. Ron Couch's office.

When Vitaioli greeted Couch, who was at his computer with his back to the door, Couch stood up, turned and un-holstered his handgun, according to documents from the investigation.

Vitaioli, who said Couch "swept the muzzle (of the gun) over the lower portion of his body," said his first response was to draw his own weapon, but he instead raised his hands, documents state.

"The actions of Captain Couch demonstrate carelessness, and were unnecessary for his self-defense, and could easily have created a deadly incident had Lieutenant Vitaioli reacted in strict accordance with his training rather than showing great restraint in his surrendering response," the re

port states.

Couch contends that he did unholster his service weapon but never pointed the gun at Vitaioli.

"Regardless of whether Captain Couch pointed his firearm at Lieutenant Vitaioli or not, his reaction to such a routine and innocuous event as an unexpected greeting from a person standing in his doorway, is inappropriate and unwarranted," the investigation found.

Couch re-holstered his gun, and the two men went outside to discuss other work-related issues.

The investigation, which began on Feb. 12 following an in-house complaint, was completed on Feb. 25. A Office of Professional Standards investigator sustained allegations of endangering others through neglect of duty and failing to be familiar with or failing to adhere to the General Orders which state, "No firearm shall be un-holstered at any time in the presence of another employee unless in the performance of duty, performance evaluations of official duties or official inspections."

Vitaioli said Couch told him to not sneak up on him and "he had previously punched two other employees for doing the same thing." Couch recalled a similar incident in which he "gestured as through he was going to hit" an employee who "grabbed him from behind," the report states.

Couch told the investigator that his "natural reaction when startled is to put his hand on his firearm and draw his weapon. Couch said he was working in a quiet environment, focused on his computer when he heard the unfamiliar voice of Vitaioli and perceived him as a threat.

Couch said his fears were warranted due to "insufficient" security at the facility. The report states that the building requires an electronic key fob for entry, through citizens have entered when the door was left secure. However, no such incident was reported that day.

The investigation determined that Couch "made little or no effort to determine the nature of the distraction behind him or to identify the person in his doorway before drawing his firearm" and that "there was no outside disturbance or commotion prior to the incident."

An allegation of unlawful conduct through improper exhibition of a dangerous weapon or firearm was not sustained because the State Attorney's Office determined, after speaking with Vitaioli, that no criminal charges would be filed in the case.

Sheriff Brad Steube said only Couch knows why he responded the way he did.

"Why would someone react like that, that's my question," Steube said, adding that he does not believe this was a training issue. "He is at a district office where you can't get into it unless you have key access, and there is a secretary before you can get to him. I don't know how someone standing at the threshold of your office is a threat."

Couch, who joined the sheriff's office on April 1, 1985, will leave the sheriff's office on Monday. Couch, who is captain and patrol commander for District Three, has an annual salary of $97,377.80 and is in a deferred retirement, or DROP, program.

Elizabeth Johnson, Herald crime reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7041. Follow her on Twitter @EJohnsonBHcrime.

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