Florida cop, police chief charged in citizen academy shooting death of Minnesota woman

- The Punta Gorda, Florida police officer who is believed to have accidentally shot and killed a retired librarian from Minnesota during a citizens academy “shoot, don't shoot” exercise has been charged with manslaughter.

Officer Lee Coel  turned himself in to the Charlotte County Jail after the charges were announced. Punta Gorda Police Chief Tom Lewis was also charged with culpable negligence, according to the state attorney's office.

The charges come after the state attorney's review of an investigation into the shooting death of Mary Knowlton, which was conducted by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

After the shooting in August, Lewis called the 73-year-old woman's death a “horrific accident.”

Shooting at citizens academy

The shooting happened during a role-playing exercise designed to give citizens an idea of the life-and-death situations officers face. Mary Knowlton volunteered to play the role of a police officer during the demonstration, while Coel played the citizen. The officer’s gun should have been loaded with blanks, but Knowlton was shot with a live round. She died shortly afterward at the hospital.

Lewis said after the shooting that he would not resign, but vowed to make changes to department procedures.

Knowlton's family filed a civil lawsuit against the police department and the city approved a more than $2 million settlement in November.

Mary Knowlton was described as a life-long learner who was active in her church, volunteered in community organizations and at the local library.

Past investigations of Officer Coel

The investigation into the death of Mary Knowlton was not the first for which Coel was investigated in his career at the Punta Gorda Police Department, which began March 17, 2014.

In October 2015, he was investigated - and cleared - for using excessive force after stopping a man riding a bicycle without a light. Coel said the man resisted arrest, so he released his K9 on the man.

That man's lawyer said video of the incident showed his client was not resisting, and his client spent 11 days in the hospital with injuries from that incident. Even though the department cleared Coel, it said he used "poor decision making" during the incident, and the department changed policies surrounding the use of K9s.


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