Minnesota woman killed by Florida officer during 'shoot-don't shoot' exercise

- A woman from Austin, Minnesota was mistakenly shot and killed by an officer on Tuesday during a “shoot-don’t shoot” citizen police academy session in Florida.

According to the Punta Gorda Police Department, officers hosted 35 people from the community for a two-hour session. Two participants, including Mary Knowlton, 73, were randomly selected to be put through a “shoot-don’t shoot” scenario, in which they make decisions on using simulated lethal force in a live role play.

“During the first scenario, participant Mary Knowlton was struck with a live round and was fatally injured,” the police department said.

The officer involved, who has yet to be identified, has been placed on administrative leave pending the outcome of the investigation.

 According to the Associated Press, Punta Gorda Police Lt. Katie Heck identified the officer as Lee Coel. Heck said he has worked for the department since 2014 and he often did department presentations and tours, "specifically role-playing in these shoot/don't shoot scenarios."

“I am devastated for everyone involved in this unimaginable event,” Chief Tom Lewis told reporters. “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.”

Mary Knowlton's son, Steve, told The Associated Press on Wednesday that his father witnessed the shooting and is "devastated." In regard to the officer involved in the shooting, Steve Knowlton said, "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."

According to the city's website, the citizen's academy is an eight session course designed to provide insight into city government.

Knowlton was a librarian at the Scott County Public Library in Minnesota before moving to Punta Gorda. She studied Library Science at Minnesota State University, Mankato. Knowlton also worked as a librarian in the Eagan-Apple Valley-Savage school district, full-time at Parkview Elementary School from 1988 to 2004, and as a substitute as recently as 2013.

“She gave everything she had to try and make her community a better place," said Parkview principal Nicole Frovik. "That would be Mary to volunteer. To be at this event to learn to help her community. To volunteer to be one of the people role-playing."

Complete statement from Punta Gorda Police Department

On Aug. 9, 2016, the Punta Gorda Police Department hosted approximately 35 civilians from the community for a two hour Citizen Police Academy, during which time two participants were randomly selected to be put through a “shoot/don’t shoot” scenario in which they make decisions on using simulated lethal force in a live role play.   

During the first scenario, participant Mary Knowlton was struck with a live round and was fatally injured. She was transported to Lee Memorial Hospital where she was pronounced dead.   

Chief Tom Lewis stated, “I am devastated for everyone involved in this unimaginable event. 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.”   

Chief Tom Lewis contacted the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to respond and begin an investigation into the events surrounding this incident. The involved officer has been placed on administrative leave pending the outcome of this investigation. Florida Department of Law Enforcement personnel are now on scene and have taken command of the investigation.   

The Punta Gorda Police Department realizes the community has many questions about this incident. We also must take great care to not jeopardize the investigation. As the investigation continues and more information is available we will release it. 

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