Woman fatally shot playing ‘officer’ in Florida police academy drill

This is an archived article and the information in the article may be outdated. Please look at the time stamp on the story to see when it was last updated.

PUNTA GORDA, Fla. — A police officer accidentally shot and killed a retired Minnesota woman during a civilian police drill in Punta Gorda, Florida, that was supposed to employ only blank ammunition, police said.

The officer shot Mary Knowlton on Tuesday night during a “shoot/don’t shoot” role-play scenario,” in which officers make decisions on using simulated lethal force in a live role play, Punta Gorda Police Chief Tom Lewis said at a news conference.

Lewis said the gun used in the active-shooter scenario mistakenly had a live round in it. Knowlton was transported to a local hospital where she was pronounced dead.

She was 73, according to CNN affiliate WINK. A librarian who originally hailed from Minnesota, Knowlton was listed as being on board of directors for the Friends of the Punta Gorda Library. A longtime friend told CNN she loved children, books and learning and had myriad friends through her philanthropic work and her years working in Minnesota schools.

During the scenario in which Knowlton was shot, participants played the roles of police officers, good guys and bad guys, and everyone was provided “blank guns,” Punta Gorda police Lt. Katie Heck told CNN.

Knowlton was selected to play an officer, she said. Heck said she could not verify how many times Knowlton was shot.

Citizens Academy

The scenario was part of a two-hour training course. Though the city advertises an eight-session Citizens Academy, which gives residents a closer look at all facets of city government, this program was different, Heck said.

This was a police-specific event sponsored by the local Chamber of Commerce. While the police department has conducted five or six such sessions in the past, this was the first sponsored by the chamber, she said.

An advertisement on the chamber website said the event was sold out. Chamber President John Wright was in a meeting late Wednesday morning and couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.

Among the program’s highlights are a tour of the police department, a “show-and-tell” of various equipment used by police and the reenactment of scenarios in which officers have to make decisions on whether to fire their weapons, Heck said.

In a March Facebook post, the police department touted “another successful Citizens Academy” and provided photos from the event.

“Two lucky members were chosen to test fire a department Taser, which was a huge hit,” the post said.

Tuesday’s course was attended by 35 civilians. The city called in the chaplain to counsel those participants and has arranged free counseling services for anyone else in the community who might need it.

‘Just a doer’

Carolyn Hartwigsen of Edina, Minnesota, met Knowles in the early 1980s when they were both attending graduate school at Mankato State University. The pair later returned to Mankato State for their education specialist degrees, joining forces on a thesis about the qualities of effective schools.

Though the latter degree qualified Knowlton to apply for school principal positions, she continued to work as a library media specialist, Hartwigsen said.

Reached Tuesday afternoon, Hartswigen told CNN she was amid a walk “to clear my head of this tragedy that is filling my heart with so much pain.”

Knowlton had many friends and was always smiling, Hartwigsen said. She was active in the women’s philanthropic organization, P.E.O. International, she said.

Knowlton and her husband lived in Prior Lake, Minnesota, before retiring to Punta Gorda several years ago, she said.

“She just drew you to want to be a part of whatever she was doing because you knew if she was doing it, it was worthwhile,” she said.

Knowlton could make whoever she was talking to feel like they were her best friend. She cared about everyone and her demeanor told people it was OK to open up and share their own lives, she said.

“Mary was just a doer,” Hartwigsen said. “There are people who always have that positive radiance about them. You just always want to be around them.”

Hartwigsen said her “heart goes out” to the officer who accidentally killed Knowlton, but at the same time she feels the Punta Gorda Police Department could have taken more precautions to make sure this sort of thing didn’t happen.

‘Pray for Mary’s husband’

“Our entire police department and all of our city leaders are absolutely devastated for everyone involved in this unimaginable event,” Lewis said. “If you pray, you pray for Mary’s husband and family and for all of the officers and witnesses that were involved in this incident. Everyone involved is in a state of overwhelming shock and grief.”

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement has been contacted to initiate an investigation into the incident, he said.

Information regarding the officer will be released publicly later Wednesday, Heck said.

Citizen police academies are generally encouraged as a way to bolster ties between police department and the communities they protect. A report last year from the President’s Task Force on 21st-Century Policing said, “Law enforcement agencies should engage youth and communities in joint training with law enforcement, citizen academies, ride-alongs, problem solving teams, community action teams, and quality of life teams.”

In the United States, 33,636 people died from firearm-related incidents in 2013, the most recent data available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Notice: you are using an outdated browser. Microsoft does not recommend using IE as your default browser. Some features on this website, like video and images, might not work properly. For the best experience, please upgrade your browser.