(NEW YORK) — Real weapons will not be used at future Citizen Police Academy events after a 73-year-old Florida woman was fatally shot with a live round at an event Tuesday, said Punta Gorda Police Department Chief Tom Lewis.
The tragic accident unfolded at a two-hour training session hosted by the Punta Gorda Police Department. There were about 35 civilians at the event, police said.
Two of the participants were randomly selected and staged a mock “shoot/don’t shoot” scenario, in which they made decisions on whether to use lethal force in a live role-playing exercise.
Mary Knowlton was accidentally shot with a live round by an officer during the first scenario. Authorities rushed the woman to Lee Memorial Hospital where she was pronounced dead, police said.
Lewis called the role-playing event a “popular activity” in previous programs and said that personnel was unaware of any live ammunition in the particular revolver that was used. In the past, similar exercises were conducted without incident or injury, Lewis said. Several police personnel were present at the time of the incident, he added.
The officer involved in the shooting, identified as Punta Gorda Police Department Officer Lee Coel, is “grief-stricken” and has been placed on administrative leave, Lewis said. He currently has officers assigned to him to monitor his psychological state.
Coel is heavily involved in the community and has frequently provided presentations for the “shoot/don’t shoot” scenarios, according to the police department.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is conducting an independent investigation into the incident, which Lewis requested, he said.
The role of Citizen Police Academy is to improve community relations, Lewis said. Citizens are able to learn about the police infrastructure and meet the police officers who serve them. Knowlton attended several community events, Lewis said, adding that she was a “phenomenal person.”
“I am devastated for everyone involved in this unimaginable event,” Lewis said Tuesday. “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.”
Punta Gorda City Manager Howard Kunik said the city’s administration is “shocked” by the incident.
“We want to express our deepest sympathy to the family and friends of Mary Knowlton. We are shocked by this horrific accident and are grieving deeply over Mary’s passing,” Kunik said at a press conference Wednesday morning. “We are mourning and missing Mary, as she was a vital member of our community.”
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