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Officer cleared of wrongdoing in death on Dec. 25, 2019; family says use of force excessive

A tactical officer with the Victoria Police Department has been cleared of wrongdoing in the death of a woman who was shot in the back of the head with plastic bullets after she barricaded herself in a room that was on fire on Christmas Day 2019.
A photo of Lisa Rauch sits in front of her parents, Ron and Audrey Rauch, and her daughter Cheryl Peterson at the family’s home in Langford. ADRIAN LAM, TIMES COLONIST

A tactical officer with the Victoria Police Department has been cleared of wrongdoing in the death of a woman who was shot in the back of the head with plastic bullets after she barricaded herself in a room that was on fire on Christmas Day 2019.

The family of Lisa Rauch, 43, disputes the report by the Independent Investigations Office, which probes police-involved injuries and deaths, saying the use of force “was reckless and excessive.”

“Our understanding of the events leading to Lisa’s death for the last 10 months is that she attacked police with a knife in a barricaded room and was shot in the back of the head with rubber bullets,” said her father, Ron Rauch, sitting in his Langford home next to his wife Audrey and Lisa Rauch’s 26-year-old daughter Cheryl Peterson. “That was not the case.”

The report, released by the Independent Investigations Office, details a chaotic scene in which police tried to remove a woman, intoxicated by drugs and alcohol and believed to be armed with a knife, from a smoke-filled suite in a supportive housing unit.

The woman is not named in the report but has been identified by family as Lisa Rauch. She died four days later from bleeding in the brain.

IIO’s chief civilian director Ronald MacDonald found that the officer did not intentionally fire the less-lethal projectiles at the woman’s head and that the officer had to act quickly because the smoke and fire posed a danger to police, firefighters and other residents of the building.

Ron and Audrey Rauch said their daughter, who was bipolar and struggled with drug and alcohol addiction, could have been saved if officers were accompanied by mental health workers or a crisis negotiator to convince her to surrender.

“A negotiator had over an hour to get there,” Ron Rauch said.

Lisa Rauch, who was homeless at the time, had had many run-ins with the police and did not trust them, her family said.

According to a narrative laid out in the IIO report, police were called on Christmas Day after Lisa Rauch, believed to be intoxicated and threatening other residents, barricaded herself inside a suite in a building on Pandora Avenue.

Officers had first been called to the building on the evening of Dec. 24 after staff said the woman was in the building uninvited and was acting aggressively and violently. Police arrested the woman and she was taken to police cells to sober up, then released around 6:30 a.m. Dec. 25.

Surveillance video shows Rauch returning to the building around 1:35 p.m. and entering the suite of a resident. The resident later told investigators that Rauch drank and consumed drugs in the suite. When she became “psychotic,” the resident left the suite. The suite was locked when the resident tried to re-enter and the woman briefly opened the door, showing the resident a knife and threatening to kill her.

The resident went to the building manager, who called police at 4:42 p.m. Officers were told that the woman had a knife, and they were aware that she had been arrested on Christmas Eve.

Police could hear Rauch screaming and smashing things in the suite. Officers tried to evacuate the floor, but some residents would not leave, and the Greater Victoria Emergency Response Team was called in for help. At 5:40 p.m., patrol officers changed shifts, a fact which made Rauch’s family upset. They said the situation was too serious to hand over to a new command.

At 5:45 p.m., a fire alarm sounded inside the suite. The Victoria Fire Department responded but firefighters staged nearby, as they were told officers were dealing with a criminal barricade.

At 6:16 p.m., dark-coloured smoke began to billow from a window and water poured from the building’s sprinklers.

A witness officer told IIO investigators he was concerned for the safety of other building residents. The officer said both police and the woman were at risk of smoke inhalation.

Tactical officers used a master key to unlock the suite’s door, opened it wide and yelled multiple times for the woman to come out. The woman yelled and screamed but did not come out.

For about five minutes, officers remained at the door, using flashlights to try to see through the smoke into the dark suite.

At 6:23 p.m., firefighters came to the door and were told they would have to stay behind police shields because the woman was believed armed and dangerous. Firefighters sprayed water from the door but did not extinguish the fire. The resulting steam only made it harder to see in the suite.

Tactical officers slowly advanced into the room. An officer told investigators the smoke was like a “wall” reflecting the light from police flashlights. Officers could see the glow of flames and they were worried the woman could be above the officers in a loft area, and there were fears she could drop an accelerant, putting them at further risk.

One officer said he thought he saw the woman standing on the other side of a couch in the centre of the room with her arms at her sides. The officer yelled “contact” which meant he could see the woman.

The officer being investigated fired three rounds and Rauch slumped forward. Officers then realized she had been sitting on the couch facing away from officers. The tactical officers removed the unconscious woman from the suite and firefighters extinguished the flames.

Rauch was taken to Victoria General Hospital’s intensive care unit and doctors found she was suffering from massive bleeding in the brain. Ron and Audrey Rauch were in Arizona at the time, where Audrey was recovering from an emergency gallbladder surgery. Lisa Rauch’s daughter, Cheryl, and sister Kelly, made the difficult decision to remove her from life support on Dec. 29. A small memorial was held for her at Our Place Society, where she was a client.

Ten months later, the family is grappling with unanswered questions.

“Why did the officer shoot three times into a smoke-filled room?” Ron Rauch asked. “One shot can be considered an accident, but three is intentional.”

Ron and Audrey believe the officer should have been charged in connection with the death. The family is asking for a coroner’s inquest, but were told that could take years.

An autopsy showed Lisa Rauch died of blunt force head injuries consistent with being caused by ARWEN rounds. The weapon has large, rounded projectiles made out of hard plastic and that are intended to be fired into the body.

Her toxicology report found a high blood alcohol concentration and the presence of methamphetamine, cocaine/benzoylecgonine, and two anti-depressants.

Ron Rauch said his daughter was “no angel.” She used drugs and alcohol and committed crimes to feed her habit, he said. Ron and Audrey said they tried for years to get help for their daughter to no avail.

“Our mental health system had failed her,” he said.

The Independent Investigations Office reviewed statements from one civilian witness, seven firefighters and six witness police officers. Investigators also reviewed dispatch and police records, 911 recordings, police radio transmissions, police text communications and CCTV footage. The department’s use of force policy, police training records, medical records, a pathologist report and toxicology report were also examined. The officer who fired the shots did not agree to an interview with the IIO, which is his right under the Police Act.

MacDonald said there is no evidence the officer purposely fired at the woman’s head. “That he did so, on the evidence, was a tragic accident.” He said the officer did not show recklessness or negligence.

“They were doing all they reasonably could to save an emotionally disturbed and intoxicated person from herself — and the other residents of the building from her actions — and needed to act swiftly with a relatively high level of force to try to resolve a very dangerous situation as quickly as possible,” he wrote.

MacDonald found that, in the circumstances, the use of force “was necessary and reasonably proportional. The outcome was unintended.” As a result, he cleared the officer of any criminal offences.

Peterson does not know the name of the officer, but she would like to him address the family.

“Not talking [to the family] and refusing is disrespectful,” Peterson said, wiping away tears. “There’s no justice. There’s never going to be.”

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