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Family of woman killed by police with plastic bullets tried for years to get help

Growing up in Saskatoon, Lisa Rauch was an outgoing and conscientious child. Her mother remembers at age 11, Lisa insisted on doing her own laundry and would interrupt neighbourhood play dates to move her clothes from the washer to the dryer.
Lisa Rauch died in December 2019 after being shot with rubber bullets by police. FAMILY PHOTO

Growing up in Saskatoon, Lisa Rauch was an outgoing and conscientious child. Her mother remembers at age 11, Lisa insisted on doing her own laundry and would interrupt neighbourhood play dates to move her clothes from the washer to the dryer.

The family relocated to Langford in 1990, and two years later, when Lisa was about 15, her mental health began to suffer. She started using drugs to cope. At first it was marijuana, but that led to cocaine, then methamphetamines and heroin.

As her addiction worsened and Lisa ended up homeless, her parents, Ron and Audrey Rauch, braced themselves for the call letting them know their daughter had died of an overdose.

Instead, while on vacation in Arizona last December, they learned Lisa was in Victoria General Hospital’s intensive care unit. A police officer had shot her in the back of the head with plastic bullets on Christmas Day.

The death was investigated by B.C.’s Independent Investigations Office, which probes police-involved injuries and deaths. It cleared the officer who shot her of wrongdoing.

Sitting in her kitchen Friday, just hours after the IIO’s report was released publicly, Audrey Rauch said she was “gobsmacked” to discover that Lisa was shot with three plastic bullets — two struck the back of her head and one struck near her neck — while sitting on a couch, her back turned toward the officers.

Ron Rauch said in the days following Lisa’s death, the family was told by IIO investigators that Lisa ran at officers with a knife.

Victoria police and officers with the Greater Victoria Emergency Response Team were trying to end an hours-long standoff in which Lisa, reportedly armed with a knife, had barricaded herself inside a room in a Pandora Avnue building operated by Victoria Cool Aid Society. The situation became more desperate when a fire broke out inside the suite, sending smoke pouring into the hallways and triggering the building’s smoke alarms and sprinklers.

Tactical officers opened the door and advanced into the dark, smoky suite. One officer thought he saw the woman standing with her arms at her sides, so he yelled “contact,” meaning he could see her. Another officer fired toward what he believed was her torso — but since she was actually sitting, she was struck in the head.

Lisa was carried out of the suite and taken to Victoria General Hospital’s intensive care unit with massive bleeding in the brain.

The family ensured Lisa’s organs were donated and then, on Dec. 29, made the decision to remove her from life support.

Now, they are calling for a coroner’s inquest — something they hope will provide more answers. They would like to hear from the officer who fired the plastic bullets. He did not agree to be interviewed for the IIO investigation, which is his right under the Police Act.

They would like to know why a crisis negotiator or a mental health expert was not on scene to persuade Lisa to surrender. Cheryl Peterson, Lisa’s daughter, said her mother did not trust police officers after her many run-ins with law enforcement, and Audrey said her daughter was once held in a police cell overnight naked.

They don’t know if Lisa was getting help from the city’s Assertive Community Treatment teams, but an outreach worker at Our Place Society was trying to connect her with a mental health team. ACT teams — made up of psychiatrists, psychiatric nurses, social workers, nurses, police, addiction-recovery workers, mental-health workers and probation officers — work with people struggling with mental health and addiction who regularly come in contact with police.

Audrey recalls a difficult meeting at Eric Martin Pavilion, which provides in-patient psychiatric treatment, when she was trying to get Lisa help for bipolar disorder. A doctor sternly said Lisa must deal with her drug problem before she could address her mental health issues. Audrey said there was no effort to deal with the dual issues of mental health and addiction.

“The system failed miserably,” she said.

Lisa had her daughter when she was 16 and still in high school at Belmont Secondary School. She dropped out of high school in Grade 12 and received her GED. She worked various retail jobs but began committing petty thefts and credit card fraud to feed her drug habit. She later started living on the street, mostly in gravel pits and forested areas, and Cheryl was raised by her grandparents.

Now 27 and working at the Victoria General Hospital as a housekeeper, Peterson said she talked to her mother every day, but their conversations were often difficult. She said her mother could be “grumpy” and filled with rage.

On her good days, Audrey said, Lisa had a great sense of humour. She was musical from a young age and even though decades had passed since she played piano regularly, she could come in the house and play a tune without sheet music, her father said.

Peterson’s favourite photo of her mother was one taken in 2009, in front of a Christmas tree backdrop. Lisa’s blond hair is worn wavy with curled bangs framing her face. Her cheekbones are highlighted with blush and her lips are painted pink. She prefers to remember her mother that way, rather than lying unconscious in a hospital bed, unable to say goodbye.

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Timeline of events leading up to Lisa Rauch’s death

Dec. 24, 2019 — Victoria police are called to the Cool Aid supportive housing building in the 700-block of Pandora Avenue. Staff say the uninvited woman was acting aggressively and violently. Lisa Rauch is arrested after a struggle and taken to police cells to sober up.

Dec. 25, 6:30 a.m. — Rauch is released from police cells.

1:35 p.m. — Rauch returns to the Cool Aid building and enters a woman’s suite, where she reportedly drinks and consumes drugs before locking the woman out and threatening to kill her.

4:42 p.m. — Staff call Victoria police, saying Rauch is believed to have a knife and has uttered threats. Officers can hear Rauch screaming and smashing things inside the suite. The Greater Victoria Emergency Response Team is called in for help.

5:45 p.m. — Fire breaks out in the suite, triggering a fire alarm. Half an hour later, dark-coloured smoke begins to billow from the window and water pours from the building’s sprinklers. Officers later tell IIO investigators they were worried that officers, other residents and Rauch were at risk of smoke inhalation.

Tactical officers use a master key to unlock the suite’s door. They open it wide and yell over and over for Rauch to come out.

6:23 p.m. — Victoria firefighters come to the door but are told they will have to stay behind police shields because the woman is considered armed and dangerous. Firefighters spray water into the room, creating steam that makes it harder to see inside the suite.

An officer later tells IIO investigators that the smoke was like a wall that reflected the light from police flashlights.

One officer believes he sees Rauch standing on the other side of a couch in the centre of the room with her arms at her sides. He yells “contact” and another officer fires three rounds. Rauch slumps forward. Officers then realize she had been sitting on the couch facing away from officers. The tactical officers remove the unconscious woman from the suite and firefighters extinguish the flames. Rauch is taken to hospital.

Dec. 29 — Rauch’s family make the decision to remove her from life support.

Oct. 16, 2020 — The Independent Investigations Office releases its report into Rauch’s death. The officer who shot her is cleared of wrongdoing.