For Mary Knowlton, a 73-year-old retired librarian, it was a way to learn the intricacies of police work in a safe setting: a citizen police academy in Punta Gorda, her adopted hometown.
The course was set up to give participants a close look at the local police force in the Southwest Florida community known for its retirees.
During the scenario dubbed “shoot/don’t shoot” on Tuesday, the elderly mother was shot and killed in a tragedy that has stunned the local police department.
“This is a horrific event for all of us,” Punta Gorda Police Chief Tom Lewis said during an afternoon news conference on Wednesday. “We were unaware that there was live ammunition in the gun.”
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is investigating what was supposed to be a role-playing session to help citizens understand the dangers police face in street confrontations.
Lewis said the weapon used by the police officer is supposed to fire only blanks. But in this case, a “revolver” was used by the officer, who was playing the “bad guy” while Knowlton took the part of a victim.
She was “mistakenly struck” with a live round during the lesson’s “first scenario,” the department said.
Lewis said he could not explain why the revolver was used.
The chief did not release the name of the officer, who was placed on administrative leave, saying only the officer was “grief stricken.”
The death of the career librarian stunned the quiet community of 17,000 residents, where Knowlton moved several years ago with her husband, Gary, and served on the Friends of the Punta Gorda Library board, according to her Facebook page. She spent much of her career working at the public library in Scott County, Minnesota, where she was from.
Her son, Steven, who met with reporters on Wednesday, said his father is devastated. “This has killed our family,” he told WINK news. “I don’t know if I can ever get over this.”
At the time, Knowlton’s husband accompanied her to the citizen’s academy and watched, with 34 other members of the class, as she was shot and collapsed onto the floor.
At first, class members thought she was just acting, but soon realized what had taken place. She was rushed to Lee Memorial Hospital, where she was pronounced dead.
The “shoot/don’t shoot” sessions are part of law enforcement training and are carried out in citizen police academies, said Ray Soccoro, director of the School of Justice at Miami Dade College. In most cases, however, police use rubber guns or unloaded weapons.
“Safety has to be paramount,” said Socorro, a onetime Miami police commander and training officer.
On Wednesday morning, city leaders issued a statement calling Knowlton a beloved member of the Punta Gorda community.
“We are shocked by this horrific accident and are grieving deeply over Mary’s passing,” the statement said. “We also would like to acknowledge the impact this had on the other participants who were present during this tragedy.”
What’s not clear is why a police officer would take part in a role-playing scenario while carrying a weapon with live rounds.
Hours after the shooting, photos posted online showed the station surrounded by yellow tape, while FDLE investigators questioned people inside, according to WINK News.
The citizen academies have been run for decades in Florida, starting with Orlando — the first in the country to sponsor such a class— followed by several departments in South Florida, including Miami, Miami Beach and Miami-Dade police.
“They are good for everyone — the officers, the citizens,” Socorro said.
In Punta Gorda, the classes are held on the second and fourth Tuesdays of the month, according to the website, and are limited to 35 participants at a time.
"The Academy is designed to give citizens an up-close and personal look at how City government functions and helps shape our community,” according to the city’s website.
On the police Facebook page, photos posted show academy participants taking part in scenarios that include what appear to be citizens aiming fake guns and riding in patrol cars.