Florida police chief, officer charged in woman’s death during gun safety demonstration

PUNTA GORDA, Fla. (WSVN) — A southwest Florida police chief and officer have both been charged in the death of an elderly woman, who was shot and killed during a police gun safety demonstration back in August.

Mary Knowlton, 73, was a participant in the Punta Gorda Police Department’s “Citizen Police Academy,” and was one of two students chosen for a “shoot/don’t shoot” role-playing demonstration.

A police spokesman said that, during the exercise, the citizen “assumes the role of the officer, and is confronted with situations in which they must make a decision about whether to use force on the role-player. The situations escalate quickly, forcing fast decisions. Historically, it fosters a better understanding for what officers face during an intense situation, and leads to informative dialogue between the community and officers who act as role players.”

But Knowlton was “mistakenly struck” with a live round fired by officer Lee Coel during the beginning of the lesson.

Paramedics rushed Knowlton from the police department to the hospital, where she was pronounced dead.

Coel faces a manslaughter charge, which is a first-degree felony, while Lewis has been charged with culpable negligence, a second-degree misdemeanor. State Attorney Steve Russell announced the charges Wednesday afternoon, WINK reported.

Guns used in the demonstrations are either supposed to be loaded with blanks or are “simunition guns,” which are real-looking weapons that fire a non-lethal projectile with reduced force. But Knowlton was mistakenly struck with a live round, officials said.

The city paid a settlement of over $2 million to Knowlton’s family in November. Since the shooting, many have asked why Coel was using a real gun loaded with live ammunition. Coel maintained that he did not know the gun had real bullets inside.

Coel has been on paid administrative leave since the shooting. He has a long history of complacency, insubordination, and questionable decisions, including two excessive force complaints when he was a rookie officer with Miramar Police in 2012.

Lewis said after the shooting that he had no intention of resigning as police chief, but said he would make changes in the department.

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