A 73-year-old librarian became the latest victim of police in Punta Gorda, Florida. However, her tragic death — in front of 34 people, during an officer’s demonstration about police use of deadly force — is far from the, unfortunately common, tales of violence by law enforcement.
Mary Knowlton signed up to be a student in the citizen police academy hosted by the Punta Gorda Police Department, intended to show residents of the small town why and how officers do what they do.
After the group of 35 participants toured the police station and spoke with officers — a popular public relations tactic used by departments across the country amid the epidemic of police violence — Knowlton and another person decided to volunteer for a demonstration.
To illustrate how and when officers decide to use lethal force, the officer had the two students role-play a scenario putting citizens in cops’ shoes.
According to Charlotte Sun photographer, Sue Paquin, who was there to cover the event, Knowlton played the role of a victim, while the officer played “bad guy.”
Such a simulation would ordinarily not pose any danger to participants, as weapons would either be fake or empty.
Not this time.
When the officer fired, live ammunition hit Knowlton — several times.
The elderly wife and mother was promptly rushed to Lee Memorial Hospital, but was pronounced dead.
“Our entire police department and all of our city leaders are absolutely devastated for everyone involved in this unimaginable event,” said Punta Gorda Police Chief Tom Lewis in a press conference Tuesday night. “I am asking that if you pray, you pray for Mary’s husband and family and for all of the officers and witnesses involved in this incident.”
Home to just 17,500 residents, the Washington Post noted, Punta Gorda has been devastated by the tragedy, which Lewis called a “horrible accident,” adding that “[e]veryone involved is in a state of overwhelming shock and grief.”
Knowlton and her husband recently relocated to Florida from Scott County, Minnesota, where she had been a career librarian. She continued that work in the small town on Florida’s western coast and served on the board of directors for the Friends of Punta Gorda Library.
Specifically where Knowlton was struck by the bullets and how many shots were fired have not yet been revealed by authorities. Why the gun used during the lethal force demonstration contained live ammunition instead of blanks as it was supposed to, has not been explained — though an investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement will be conducted by Lewis’ request.
The as-yet unidentified officer whose unwitting and horribly ironic accidental use of force killed Knowlton has been placed on administrative leave.
This particular citizen police academy, organized by the Chamber of Commerce, mirrors part of a free eight-week Citizen Academy hosted by the city, in which participants are given an “up-close and personal look” at city government, according to the City of Punta Gorda website.
Photographs posted on the Punta Gorda Police Department’s site show simulations similar to the one in which Knowlton was killed, though the weapons appear, for the most part, to be fake.
Citizen police academies are named as a positive tool for departments to use in the final report from the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing.
As the Post pointed out, there even exists a National Citizens Police Academy Association, whose website explains:
“The citizens and police officers meet each other face to face in a neutral, friendly setting and each becomes a person to the other. In the past, citizens have simply seen a uniform, now they have an understanding about the person behind the badge.”
Good intentions, however, did nothing to prevent the killing of yet another unarmed, harmless person by police — however accidental the circumstances might have been.
“My mom was a saint,” Knowlton’s son, Steven, told CBS This Morning in a statement. “Such a tremendous loss of a wonderful human being and the best mom a kid could ever hope for.”