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Family of woman killed by Victoria police hopes public hearing brings answers

Victoria police officer Ron Kirkwood faces allegations of abuse of authority and neglect of duty in the three-week public hearing, which started Monday.
Lisa Rauch died in December 2019 after being shot in the head by a police officer using an ARWEN weapon. FAMILY PHOTO

The loved ones of a woman killed by Victoria police officer filled the room on the first day of a public hearing to determine whether the officer who fired at her used unnecessary force.

It’s the third such investigation into the death of Lisa Rauch. The 43-year-old was shot in the back of the head three times with plastic projectiles from an ARWEN, a “less lethal” weapon designed to cause pain and incapacitate a person, on Christmas Day 2019.

Rauch’s family called for the public hearing. Her father, Ron Rauch, said he hopes the public hearing brings closure for his family and provides new information for their many unanswered questions.

Victoria police officer Ron Kirkwood, now a sergeant, faces allegations of abuse of authority and neglect of duty in the three-week public hearing, which started Monday in Victoria.

Previous investigations by the Independent Investigations Office of B.C. (IIO) and the Vancouver Police Department on behalf of the Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner (OPCC) cleared Kirkwood of wrongdoing.

However, police complaint commissioner Clayton Pecknold an appointed retired judge to review the case once more, deciding there was a reasonable basis to believe the Vancouver police investigator got it wrong.

That led to the current public hearing.

Retired B.C. judge Wally Oppal is presiding over the hearing to determine whether Kirkwood abused his authority by recklessly or intentionally using unnecessary force in shooting Rauch with the ARWEN.

On Monday, the 911 call that prompted the police response on Dec. 25, 2019, was played.

The caller said Rauch had barricaded herself in a unit of a supportive housing facility at 749 Pandora Ave.

In the 911 call, a staff member at the housing facility said a tenant reported that Rauch, a guest in the building, appeared to be in “some sort of state of psychosis” and had grabbed a kitchen knife and threatened people inside a unit. The tenant and others had vacated the unit and Rauch was alone in the apartment, but she was refusing to leave and had started smashing things, the caller said.

He also said she had been removed by officers from a building two doors down the day before after a call to police about a potential break-and-enter. Rauch was arrested and taken to police cells to sober up, then released about 6:30 ­Christmas morning.

Sgt. Dale Sleighthome testified that officers initially tried to contain Rauch in the unit on the Christmas Day call. Officers tied the door handle of the suite to another handle to prevent her from coming out or to slow her down if she tried to exit the room, in order to give officers more time to react, he said.

But when fire alarms went off and smoke was seen coming from a window that was believed to be the unit Rauch was in, officers were instructed to open the door and look into the room, said Keith Lindner, who has retired but was then an incident commander.

Officers were arranged in a line in the hallway, referred to by officers as a “stack,” with the first officer carrying a shield. A stack normally contains an officer with a “less lethal” weapon, such as an ARWEN or Taser, as well as an officer with a firearm as a backup, Lindner said.

Lindner authorized two firefighters to join the stack to spray water into the unit with the goal of extinguishing the fire, a decision he called unique, because a stack is usually includes only police officers.

Officers who participated in the stack did not testify Monday but are expected to later in the hearing. Firefighters in the stack are also expected to testify.

Investigators with the IIO were previously told that when officers opened the door, they saw flames and thick smoke obscuring their view of the room. An officer thought he saw Rauch standing with her arms at her sides and fired three rounds. Police then realized she had been sitting on a couch facing away from them.

Rauch was unresponsive and bleeding when she was removed from the room.

The shooting caused massive bleeding in her brain and she died four days later after being removed from life support. An autopsy said she died as a result of blunt-force head injuries. There was no evidence of smoke inhalation or injuries from fire.

Chris Considine, counsel for the OPCC, asked Lindner if an ARWEN should be deployed with a clear line of sight.

Lindner reminded the lawyer he is “in retirement mode.”

“If I recollect correctly, you should be seeing — it’s like anything you discharge as a police officer — you should be seeing what you’re shooting at,” Lindner said.

“And the reason for that is you don’t want to make a mistake and perhaps kill somebody or kill the wrong person or hurt the wrong person?” Considine asked.

“Yes,” Lindner replied.

Oppal is also looking into whether Kirkwood neglected his duty to complete documentation required by the police department for incidents involving force that results in serious harm or death.

Kirkwood only dictated a brief “will-say” or summary to a supervisor but did not make any notes or document the incident. He gave the will-say on the advice of a lawyer that he exercise his Charter right to remain silent and not provide statements or make notes. None of his supervisors told him he had a duty to provide any additional statements beyond the will-say.

Kevin Woodall, counsel for Kirkwood, said regardless of whether Kirkwood met documentation requirements, he had good and sufficient cause not to because he relied on legal advice from superiors.

It would be “a trap” if a police officer followed the advice of legal counsel, and was found to have committed misconduct as a result, Woodall said.

On Tuesday, the hearing is expected to see CCTV footage showing officers in the hallway outside the suite where Rauch had barricaded herself and hear testimony from a detective who seized the footage. The tenant of the suite is also scheduled to testify. 

As in all OPCC public hearings, Oppal’s decision will be considered final and conclusive. He can also make recommendations about police policy and practice.

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