Downtown Victoria fire
(Photo by Seth Dickinson)

Warning: this article contains graphic details that may be disturbing to some readers.

A VicPD officer who fired non-lethal rounds at a woman barricaded inside a burning apartment was cleared of wrongdoing by an independent investigation on Friday.

During a breaching operation by the Greater Victoria Emergency Response Team (GVERT), the woman was shot in the head by an officer with ARWEN (Anti-Riot Weapon, ENfield) rounds and later died from her injuries.

The incident was forwarded to the Independent Investigations Office (IIO) of BC, a civilian-run police oversight body that investigates any incident involving an on-or-off duty officer where death or serious harm may have resulted from police actions.

According to the Independent Investigation Office (IIO) the incident occurred on Christmas Day last year, when police were called to a disturbance in the 700-block of Pandora Avenue at 4:42 p.m.

Police were told that a woman had barricaded herself inside a unit at a housing facility and was possibly armed with a knife.

Officers with GVERT were called and surrounded the unit. About an hour after the initial call, a fire alarm went off in the facility.

The report says that at 6:16 p.m. smoke could be seen billowing from the unit’s window and water from the building’s sprinkler system could be seen pouring down the side of the building.

Officers made the decision to breach the door to the unit and enter using a “slow and deliberate” advance to remove the woman from the fire danger.

According to the report, police had difficulty seeing inside due to the thick smoke, which was captured on CCTV. Officers also issued multiple verbal commands to the woman, which they say were ignored.

At 6:23 p.m. firefighters entered the apartment behind police and sprayed water into the room in an attempt to put out the fire.

One of the officers testified that the apparent ineffectiveness of the water caused him to think an accelerant had been used, and he was worried that the woman in the apartment would pour accelerant on the breaching team.

“At some point, I picked up some movement straight ahead of us,” the officer told IIO investigators.

“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.”

The officer says he called ‘contact’ to the breaching team, and another officer armed with an ARWEN fired three rounds at the woman.

Police told investigators that they realized the woman had in fact been sitting facing away from investigators, and the rounds had hit the back of her head.

The woman was given medical attention by paramedics and transported to hospital, where she was found to be suffering from massive bleeding in the brain.

Four days later, on December 29, 2019, the woman was taken off life support and passed away.

An autopsy confirmed that her death was caused by blunt force head injuries consistent with the ARWEN rounds.

Toxicology reports also said that the woman was heavily intoxicated with alcohol, and had several recreational drugs in her system including methamphetamine and cocaine.

In his report, Chief Civilian Director Ronald J. MacDonald wrote that the incident was a “tragic accident” and there was no indication of negligent behaviour on the part of the officers.

“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,” MacDonald wrote.

He concluded that the matter would not be referred to Crown counsel for consideration of charges.