PUNTA GORDA, Fla. (AP) — A woman was fatally shot by an officer while participating in a “shoot-don’t shoot” exercise during a two-hour citizens academy hosted by the Punta Gorda Police Department in southwest Florida.
Police Chief Tom Lewis said the shooting happened Tuesday night as two of the 35 participants were randomly selected to take part in a live role-playing scenario “in which they make decisions on using simulated lethal force.”
Lewis said Mary Knowlton, a librarian, was “mistakenly struck with a live round.” She was taken to a hospital in nearby Fort Myers, where she was pronounced dead.
Steve Knowlton, a son of the woman, told The Associated Press on Wednesday that his father witnessed the shooting and is “devastated.” He said his parents had been married for 55 years.
Of the officer involved, Steve Knowlton added, “I forgive him … There’s too much hate in this world, in America. We always feel like we need revenge and it doesn’t solve anything.”
The citizen’s academy is a free, eight-session course designed to provide insight into city government, according to the city’s website.
Lt. Katie Heck, a police spokeswoman, said that Tuesday night’s session at the police station, which included a tour and plans for various exercises, was thrown into disarray by the events.
“There was a lot of confusion,” Heck said. “It definitely was something that was unexpected and awful.”
Heck said in the previous sessions she’s been in, “everyone is involved in the role playing scenarios. She said they use “what we call simunition guns” for the session. Simunition products are real-looking weapons that fire a non-lethal projectile with reduced force.
“Exactly what happened last night is still under investigation,” Heck said.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is investigating, according to the police chief. Lewis declined to identify the officer involved in the shooting, but said he’s been placed on administrative leave.
“I am devastated for everyone involved in this unimaginable event,” Lewis told reporters during a late-night news conference at the police department. “If you pray, please pray for Mary’s family, and for the officers who were involved. Everyone involved in this accident is in a state of overwhelming shock and grief.”
A profile on a Facebook page that appeared to be Knowlton’s said she lives in Punta Gorda, but had been a librarian at Scott County Public Library in Savage, Minnesota. She studied library science at Minnesota State University in Mankato, Minnesota, and elementary education at George Mason University in Virginia. The profile information said she’s from Austin, Minnesota.
Carolyn Hartwigsen, of Edina, Minnesota, told The Associated Press she was a longtime friend of Knowlton. She said Knowlton had a love of books and tried to instill that in young readers.
“So much is on the internet now. But, books are so important to have in children’s hands. That was important to her,” Hartwigsen said Wednesday morning.
Hartwigsen said Mary and her husband would come back to Minnesota periodically to visit.
“She was the salt of the earth, a beautiful soul and the kindest women you would know,” she said.
The couple had two sons, Hartwigsen said.
Officer Oscar Vasquez of the Jacksonville, Illinois Police Department, who is president of the National Citizens Police Academy Association, said he had never heard of anyone taking part in one of the courses being fatally shot. He said most departments do not use weapons in “shoot/don’t shoot” scenarios that are capable of firing a live round.
“When we run scenarios, we will use starter pistols,” Vasquez told The Associated Press. “You can’t even put live ammunition in them. No projectile is capable of coming out.”
Some departments use video simulators, he said, and others use other types of non-lethal devices. Officers involved in most citizen academies don’t typically even bring their service weapons into the classes, he added.
“The class is told in advance there will be no live firearms,” Vasquez said.
With suspicions running high between police and many citizens around the country, particularly in minority communities, Vasquez said a death like that in Punta Gorda is extremely unfortunate.
“It just breaks my heart. It’s such a tragedy,” he said.
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