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'I couldn't breathe': VicPD officer recalls moment he realized he'd caused serious injury

“This is in no way how I wanted this to be resolved,” Ron Kirkwood told an Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner public hearing

Family members of Lisa Rauch watched through tears as the officer who fatally shot her with a “less-lethal” weapon in 2019 described the moment he realized she was seriously injured.

Ron Kirkwood’s voice caught as he recalled watching other officers carry Rauch out of a room where she had barricaded herself on Christmas Day.

He noticed an injury to her head that appeared to come from plastic projectiles from the ARWEN gun he had fired at her, believing he was targeting her stomach and chest.

“I remember feeling like I couldn’t breathe,” Kirkwood testified Thursday at a public hearing held by the Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner into his actions. He said he kept picturing over and over the image he had seen as he fired three ARWEN rounds.

“This is in no way how I wanted this to be resolved,” Kirkwood said, pausing to steady his voice.

Rauch was unresponsive and bleeding when she was removed from the room. She died four days later after being removed from life support. A post-mortem report said the cause of death was blunt-force head injuries consistent with ARWEN rounds.

Adjudicator Wally Oppal, a retired judge and former B.C. attorney general, is presiding over the hearing to determine if Kirkwood committed misconduct under the Police Act in connection with Rauch’s death.

Kirkwood faces allegations of abuse of authority in relation to firing the ARWEN gun at Rauch and neglect of duty in connection with his lack of documentation of the fatal shooting.

Officers were responding that day to a report that a woman had locked herself inside a unit in a Pandora Avenue supportive housing facility. The unit’s tenant testified Rauch was consuming alcohol and crystal methamphetamine and had threatened the tenant with a knife.

Shortly before Kirkwood fired the ARWEN, smoke was seen coming from the unit’s window and the building’s fire alarm went off. Officers determined the fire posed a danger and they needed to immediately remove Rauch to allow firefighters to extinguish the fire.

When officers opened the door to the unit, Kirkwood was standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Insp. Drew Robertson, who testified this week he told Kirkwood he wanted him to shoot Rauch with the ARWEN as soon as he had an opportunity. Robertson’s role at the time was what police call “lethal overwatch,” meaning he was ready to use lethal force if necessary.

Robertson testified he wanted Kirkwood to use the ARWEN to prevent him from deciding to shoot Rauch with his firearm.

Kirkwood testified, however, that the decision to shoot was his own.

He described looking into the room and seeing it filled with black smoke, from about four feet off the ground to the ceiling. Sprinklers were on full blast and he was standing in a couple of inches of water, he said.

As firefighters behind officers began spraying more water into the room, Kirkwood said, he saw Rauch move into the centre of the room. The water created a “swirling effect” on visibility in the room, with portions of the room becoming briefly clear before being obscured again, he said.

Kirkwood described seeing Rauch and preparing to shoot her with the ARWEN when he lost sight of her through the smoke. Within a second, he saw what he believed to be Rauch from her shoulders to just below her belt line.

As a member of the Greater Victoria Emergency Response Team, he was trained to capitalize on opportunities to use a less-lethal option, Kirkwood said. He had been on calls where opportunities to intervene with less-lethal weapons were missed, leading to an escalation of force, he said.

“The immediate need to incapacitate her at this point is significant because of the risk to everyone and so I choose to impact her stomach and I know that is a higher risk for injury.”

Rauch didn’t appear to react, leading Kirkwood to believe he had either missed or she was impervious to pain due to drug consumption or the mental state she was in.

He fired a second ARWEN baton at the same target, again with no reaction from Rauch, he testified.

He changed his aim to what he perceived as Rauch’s chest. Kirkwood said he balanced the risk of greater injury to Rauch from shooting at her chest with the urgency to incapacitate her to gain access to the unit for firefighters to put out the flames.

Immediately after the third shot, Kirkwood heard Robertson say: “Watch her head,” he testified.

He was confused as other officers went into the room to retrieve Rauch. That’s when he saw the impact of the ARWEN round on her head.

“There isn’t a day that has gone by — and it has been almost 1,600 days since this event — that I don’t think about this or dream about it. I can see my sight picture every time I close my eyes,” he testified.

Kirkwood sounded frustrated as he described his struggle to explain to his children why investigations into Rauch’s death have continued for more than four years.

Investigations by the IIO and the Vancouver Police Department on behalf of the Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner cleared Kirkwood of wrongdoing in Rauch’s death. A retired judge who reviewed the VPD decision agreed with the finding.

“Part of me is glad that I’m able to sit here and put this in a public record, but for god’s sake, it has taken so long. There’s got to be a better way for police officers to get their side of the story to the public,” he said,

Much focus has been put on the severity of the fire and whether it was extinguished before Kirkwood fired the ARWEN. Photos entered into evidence show a hair straightener on a couch partially blackened by fire.

Kirkwood and other officers have testified they never saw the fire go out entirely, while a firefighter operating the fire hose testified he heard shots shortly after he put the fire out.

In a cross-examination that at times became tense, Kirkwood was asked if the shooting of Rauch could have been avoided if he had been told the fire had been extinguished.

“If [firefighters] had said the fire is definitively out, then another course of action could have happened. But that didn’t happen,” he said.

Rauch’s mother, Audrey Rauch, said she just wants to understand what happened to her daughter. The years-long process could have been simplified if VicPD had contacted the family and provided the basic details known at the time of Rauch’s death, she said.

“It probably would have made me think that nobody was trying to cover anything up … Why wouldn’t they tell us if they’ve got nothing to hide?”

Instead, she was given incorrect information by other authorities in the immediate aftermath, including that her daughter was assaulted and that she ran at police with a knife, Rauch said.

She said she’s waited years for answers about her daughter’s final moments, leading the family to request the public hearing.

The family has never been contacted by VicPD, other than officers dropping off Lisa’s belongings, and they have never received an apology or condolences for their loss, Rauch said.

The lack of communication and transparency has destroyed their trust in the police department, she said.

Her advice to VicPD if the department ever has to deal with the family of someone killed by one of their officers in the future is simple: “Tell them the truth.”

VicPD Chief Del Manak, who attended part of Kirkwood’s testimony, said he would refrain from commenting until the public hearing has ended, out of respect for Rauch’s family.

The public hearing continues Friday.

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