In what's being described as a "horrible accident" by Punta Gorda Police Chief Tom Lewis, a 73-year-old Florida woman was mistakenly shot dead while participating in a citizen police academy designed to better relations between officers and the community they serve. The "shoot or don't shoot" role-playing session was part of Punta Gorda's eight-week academy—a "series of interactive sessions designed to provide insight into city government and to develop ... civically engaged residents." Mary Knowlton was one of 35 participants who was on Tuesday night touring the police station; she was chosen at random to play the victim to an officer's "bad guy" during a session about when officers decide to use lethal force, reports WBBH. The weapon used should have been fake or empty; instead, Knowlton was hit.
The Washington Post reports by way of her Facebook page that Knowlton was a long-time librarian in Minnesota who had relocated to Punta Gorda, where she was part of the Friends of the Punta Gorda Library board of directors. The name of the officer who shot her has not been released, but he is on administrative leave pending an investigation. The Post reports that for three decades, citizen police academies have been offered throughout the US; per decade-old Justice Department stats, about 15% of surveyed police departments had such academies. Said Lewis of the "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." (Read more Florida stories.)