A B.C. police watchdog has called a public hearing over the actions of a Victoria officer that resulted in a woman’s 2019 death.
The Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner (OPCC) said Thursday (Oct. 5) that its public hearing order relates to an officer discharging three ARWEN weapon rounds at the woman’s head and neck, which resulted in her death.
The independent civilian agency’s investigation into the death resulted in two allegations of misconduct, including abuse of authority in relation to the officer’s use of force and neglect of duty regarding a lack of documentation of the incident.
The victim’s family also filed a complaint under the police act and requested a public hearing. The OPCC is mandated to conduct an investigation whenever police actions result in a death or serious harm.
An OPCC notice of public hearing identified the victim as Lisa Rauch and the officer as Const. Ron Kirkwood. Rauch was 43 years old at the time of her death and was suffering from several vulnerabilities, including homelessness. She had tried to seek help for substance abuse and mental health challenges, but was denied or refused access to supports, the OPCC document states.
Rauch’s family said inconsistencies in the evidence and the information they were provided by the police and another watchdog garner holding a public hearing. Commissioner Clayton Pecknold said a hearing is necessary as the circumstances of Rauch’s death require a full accounting.
His decision cited how B.C.’s Independent Investigations Office (IIO) lacked evidence from Kirkwood before it cleared him, there are concerns about the officer’s use of force as he lacked a clear visual of his target and the law may have been applied incorrectly during other disciplinary decisions.
ARWEN launchers are commonly referred to as “less lethal” instruments by police forces and VicPD reiterated that phrasing on Thursday.
The incident in question occurred on Dec. 25, 2019, and the IIO in 2020 cleared Kirkwood of recklessness and negligence in relation to the death.
On the day in question, Rauch made alleged threats, had alcohol and substances in her system and barricaded herself in a supportive housing unit. After about an hour and a half, police moved in once smoke began billowing from the unit and water from the sprinklers could be seen pouring down the side of the building.
When emergency crews entered the smoke-filled unit, one officer told the IIO he saw movement and said ‘contact’ to let others know, and that’s when Kirkwood fired a “baton round” at what he thought was the woman’s midsection.
However, Rauch was sitting at the time and the officer was actually aiming at the back of her head. The three ARWEN rounds struck the woman in the head and neck. She died in hospital days later after being taken off life support, with a post-mortem report concluding she died of blunt force head injuries.
Retired B.C. judge Wally Oppal will preside over the public hearing. He will review evidence, hear sworn testimony and arrive at a decision on whether there was misconduct. If necessary, he’ll determine the corrective and/or disciplinary measures needed.
Oppal can also make recommendations to the Victoria police chief or board about policy or practice changes the department should implement.
Public hearings are not limited to the evidence and issues canvassed at discipline proceedings. A date for the hearing will be determined in the future.
VicPD Chief Del Manak said he supports police accountability measures in the province, but this incident has “already been reviewed by three levels of oversight.”
Those investigations led to VicPD making changes to its note-taking policy and creating clear guidance on reporting requirements in use-of-force incidents, Manak added.
“At this point, my thoughts are with the family and the officers involved, who have all been subjected to a years-long process that has impacted their ability to move forward with their lives,” Manak said. “We will continue to support the member who is the subject of this investigation, and our hearts are with the family who continue to re-live this event through these investigations almost four years later.”
VicPD confirmed to Black Press Media the officer is still with VicPD, but didn’t address a question about Kirkwood’s role.