A police watchdog has cleared a Greater Victoria officer involved in the death of a local woman. An investigation was launched after the woman was shot in the head with plastic projectiles on Christmas Day.
On Dec. 25, 2019, members of the Victoria Police Department responded to a call from a supportive housing facility. The complaint alleged an intoxicated woman was threatening residents. She barricaded herself in one of the building’s suites, according to a report from the Independent Investigations Office (IIO), and refused to surrender to police. A fire subsequently broke out and members of the Greater Victoria Emergency Response Team, along with firefighters, entered the unit where the woman was barricaded.
The officer who was the subject of the IIO’s investigation fired three projectiles from an ARWEN (Anti-Riot Weapon ENfield) less-lethal launcher, which struck the woman in the head and neck, knocking her unconscious.
She was taken to hospital where she was placed on a ventilator but did not regain consciousness. On Dec. 29, 2019, she was pronounced dead after being taken off life support.
Police had been called to the same building for the same woman on Christmas Eve. Staff at the housing facility told officers the woman had not been invited into the building and was acting aggressively and violently. The woman was intoxicated and was arrested. She was released at approximately 6:30 a.m. on Christmas Day.
Footage from the supportive housing building shows the woman entering the building again at 1:36 p.m. on Dec. 25. A witness told investigators she spent time in a suite drinking and consuming drugs. The witness said the woman became “psychotic,” angry and aggressive. The witness left the suite and when she later tried to reenter, she found the door locked. The witness said the woman then opened the door with a knife in her hand and threatened to kill the witness. She went to the building manager and asked him to call police shortly before 5 p.m.
Officers at the scene said the woman could be heard screaming and smashing things inside the suite. Officers tried calling out to the woman but there was no response. Officers believed they had cause to arrest the woman for uttering threats, assault with a weapon and mischief, and began trying to evacuate the floor after tying a rope on the door to alert them if she tried to leave the suite. However, they encountered difficulties persuading people to leave as it was Christmas Day.
As the situation was now considered a criminal barricade, according to an officer on scene, he asked for the Greater Victoria Emergency Response Team to be called out. At this time, ERT members began arriving and VicPD members began rotating out with officers coming on shift.
At approximately 5:45 p.m. a fire alarm sounded inside the suite and continued for about 10 minutes. The Victoria Fire Department responded but was staged nearby as police were dealing with a barricade situation. At approximately 6:15 p.m. dark smoke began billowing from the window and water could be seen pouring down the side of the building from the suite’s sprinklers.
Another officer at the scene told investigators at this point he was concerned for the safety of other residents in the building and that both police and the woman were at imminent risk from smoke inhalation. He asked for permission to break into the suite to allow the woman to exit and firefighters to extinguish the fire.
In response, ERT members were authorized to breach the door – and if needed – use a “slow and deliberate” advance into the suite to locate the woman and remove her from danger.
At 6:17 p.m. the building’s main fire alarm activated and firefighters responded. Police cut the rope securing the suite’s door and used a master key to unlock it. An officer yelled into the suite once the door was opened wide, giving multiple commands for the woman to exit. The only response, he said, was nonsensical screaming from the woman.
Smoke could be seen on the CCTV system billowing from the suite into the hall and thick black smoke was seen pouring from the exterior windows.
Officers spent approximately five minutes at the door, using flashlights to try to see inside, but were unable to visually locate the woman. At approximately 6:25 p.m., firefighters sprayed water into the suite from the doorway but the fire was not extinguished and the resulting steam worsened visibility.
An officer told investigators the smoke was like a wall reflecting their flashlights but he could see the glow of flames through it. He was concerned the woman had used an accelerant and could be hiding in a loft area above the unit and could potentially drop more accelerant on them.
“At some point, I picked up some movement straight ahead of us. I don’t know if the smoke cleared a little bit for a moment or if she actually moved but what I thought I was looking at was her standing on the other side of the couch in an open centre of the room.”
He said ‘contact,’ letting other officers know he saw her. Immediately after, the subject officer fired one baton round and he thought the subject officer was targetting her hips or stomach because that’s what he could see. He didn’t realize until she had been hit, that the woman had been sitting and what he thought was her abdomen was the back of her head.
The subject officers fired three ARWEN rounds before the woman reacted, slumping forward. She was immediately evacuated from the room.
After arriving at hospital, the woman was found to be suffering from a massive brain bleed. An autopsy reported cause of death to be blunt force head injuries consistent with ARWEN rounds. A toxicology report found a “heavy level of intoxication with alcohol,” along with methamphetamine and cocaine/benzoylecgonine “within a range associated with recreational use” and a combination of venlafaxine, desmethylvenlaflaxine and trazodone in lesser concentrations consistent with therapeutic and below therapeutic doses.
The purpose of an IIO investigation is to determine if there are reasonable grounds to believe an officer, through action or inaction, may have committed an offence in relation to an incident resulting in serious harm or death.
Investigators found no indication of recklessness or negligence by the subject officers due to a number of circumstances including the woman’s behaviour and threats, the situation created by the fire, the risk to others’ safety and limited visibility.
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