PUNTA GORDA, Fla. – A 73-year-old woman was shot and killed by a police officer in front of about 34 people Tuesday evening during a live gun demonstration just before 7 p.m. on Tuesday at police headquarters, the department said.
Mary Knowlton was one of two Citizen Police Academy students chosen to participate in a “shoot/don’t shoot” role-playing situation, Punta Gorda police said. The demonstration was supposed to instruct the class about making decisions “using simulated lethal force,” according to Chief Thomas Lewis.
Knowlton was “mistakenly struck” with a live round during the lesson’s “first scenario,” the department said.
She was rushed from the police department to Lee Memorial Hospital where she was pronounced dead, PGPD said.
Lewis, who was named the permanent chief in March after serving in the interim, called the shooting a “horrible accident.”
“Our entire police department and all of our city leaders are absolutely devastated for everyone involved in this unimaginable event,” he said in a press conference Tuesday night. “I am asking that if you pray, you pray for Mary’s husband and family and for all the officers and witnesses that involved this incident. Everyone involved is in an overwhelming state of shock and grief.”
Knowlton was a board member with Friends of the Punta Gorda Library, according to the organization’s webpage. She was originally from Minnesota, according to her Facebook.
Her son, Steven Knowlton, called it a devastating time for the family in a statement to CBS This Morning.
Niece Jenny Tucker Christensen shared sentiments via Facebook.
“My mom was a saint,” he said. “Such a tremendous loss of a wonderful human being and the best mom a kid could ever hope for.”
Punta Gorda police did not immediately identify the officer involved, but said they were placed on administrative leave. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement has been asked to conduct an investigation into the incident, which is common in officer-involved shootings.
The academy is a free eight-session course offered to as many as 35 people who are interested in learning local civics, according to Punta Gorda’s official website. The class meets biweekly on Tuesdays at different government buildings from January to May. Knowlton’s class met at the department at 5:30 p.m., according to Lt. Katie Heck.
Photos posted in a March Facebook album show adult students in a classroom watching and participating in what appears to be live demonstrations.