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VicPD officer defends use of ARWEN gun in fatal shooting of Victoria woman

Asked if the ARWEN — a “less lethal” weapon intended to cause pain but not to kill — was the only reasonable option in the situation, one of the officers there the night Lisa Rauch was killed said “it was the best tool for the job.”
Lisa Rauch died in December 2019 after being shot in the head with an ARWEN weapon by police. FAMILY PHOTO

A gun that shoots hard, plastic batons intended to cause pain but not to kill was the best tool for officers responding to a report of a woman said to be armed with a knife and barricaded in a room on fire, a Victoria police officer testified Wednesday.

Lisa Rauch, 43, was shot three times in the back of the head with plastic batons from an ARWEN, which stands for anti-riot weapon Enfield (the manufacturer), on Christmas Day 2019 by then Const. Ron Kirkwood, now a sergeant with VicPD. She died four days later after being removed from life support. An autopsy report determined she died from blunt-force head injuries.

Const. Cam Stephen was testifying at the third day of a public hearing ordered by the Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner at the request of Rauch’s family, which will determine whether Kirkwood committed misconduct under the Police Act. He faces allegations of abuse of authority related to the use of force and neglect of duty in connection with his lack of documentation of the incident.

Retired judge Wally Oppal is presiding over the hearing to determine whether Kirkwood intentionally or recklessly used unnecessary force in shooting Rauch with the ARWEN and whether he failed to meet department standards for documenting incidents in which an officer uses force that results in death or serious injury.

Stephen, a VicPD officer and member of the Greater Victoria Emergency Response Team, was questioned Wednesday about the decision to use the ARWEN in the incident. As a member of emergency response team, Stephen had an ARWEN in his police vehicle that night and brought the gun to the hallway of the supportive housing facility on Pandora Avenue where Rauch had locked herself inside a third-floor unit. He passed the ARWEN to Kirkwood shortly before the shooting so he could don a gas mask to protect himself from smoke from a fire inside the unit.

Officers who responded to the call were told Rauch was a guest in the building and had locked herself inside a unit. They were told she had been using crystal methamphetamine, had a knife and had threatened the tenant of the unit. Officers were also made aware that she had been arrested the night before at a nearby building and had not complied with police, requiring several officers to remove her.

Officers initially decided to try to persuade Rauch to leave the unit on her own and were awaiting the arrival of crisis negotiators, but the situation became urgent when smoke was seen coming out of the unit’s window and the fire alarm went off, Stephen said.

Units on the third floor had been evacuated but the rest of the building was still occupied at the time of the fire.

Kevin Woodall, counsel to Kirkwood, sought to paint a picture of the danger officers and others in the building faced after the fire began and the urgency for police to act.

If police did not attempt to gain access to the unit to put out the fire, everyone in the building would be at risk, he said. But if officers went in, they would put themselves at risk, because Rauch had access to a knife and had shown animosity to the police, Woodall said.

Stephen agreed.

“There was really only one reasonable way to resolve those two dilemmas, which is that the police had to accept the risk for themselves going into the suite rather than imposing the risk on the rest of the occupants,” Woodall said.

Stephen said he had fired an ARWEN at a person about 10 times and compared the impact of a 78-gram ARWEN round to being hit with a fastball. He agreed with Woodall when he said if an ARWEN round hits an intended part of the body, generally the torso, it would cause bruising but would have virtually no risk of death.

“We know from this case, of course, that if there is an error in deploying it, and a baton hits a person in a vulnerable part of the body, it can cause serious injury or death,” Woodall said.

“It can,” Stephen said.

Asked by Woodall if the ARWEN was the only reasonable option in the situation, Stephen said, “it was the best tool for the job.”

Chris Considine, counsel for the police complaint commissioner asked Stephen why an ARWEN was used instead of other options, such as bean-bag gun or a Taser.

Stephen said a Taser would have been dangerous, because Rauch might have been covered in fire accelerant and if hit by a Taser, she could burst into flames. A bean-bag gun is often not powerful enough to force people to comply with police orders, Stephen said.

Asked whether officers would have thrown a flashbang into the suite to distract or confuse Rauch and allow officers to arrest her, Stephen said a flashbang is meant to be used when officers have a line of sight.

“Obviously if we’re not able to see through smoke, we’re not going to throw a flashbang into the suite, because even though it’s not designed to cause pain or cause injury, it can,” he testified.

“Yet the ARWEN gun was deployed on this occasion, wasn’t it?” Considine asked.

“I can’t speak for the deployment, but that would be a sighted deployment,” Stephen replied.

Several officers who were in the hallway outside the suite have testified when they opened the unit’s door, they were met with thick smoke and were able to see only a few feet into the unit.

Considine said training for the ARWEN dictates that the projectiles not be aimed at the head, clavicle or neck and that officers must have a clear line of sight to ensure they don’t hit a vulnerable part of the body.

“That’s correct,” Stephen said.

An officer thought he saw Rauch standing in the room with her arms at her sides and yelled “Contact” to indicate he could see her, according to a report by the Independent Investigations Office of B.C., which cleared Kirkwood of wrongdoing in 2020. Kirkwood fired three rounds. Officers then realized Rauch had been sitting on a couch facing away from them.

The back of the couch was about 10 to 12 feet from the door, officers have told the public hearing.

To shoot Rauch from that range with the ARWEN turns the gun into a lethal weapon, Rauch’s mother, Audrey Rauch, said Wednesday.

“That fellow who’s being interviewed today was saying if it’s used appropriately, if it’s used correctly, then it’s not as big an issue. But that makes me think that it was used inappropriately and incorrectly,” she said.

GVERT officers and firefighters are expected to testify today.

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