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Police watchdog clears RCMP officer of wrongdoing in Whistler man’s death

Officers did not use excessive force on Jason Koehler during his March 2020 arrest inside a Whistler Village restaurant, says IIO

The Independent Investigations Office (IIO) of BC has determined Whistler RCMP officers did not use excessive force in a March 2020 police incident that ended with the death of local business owner Jason Koehler.

In a decision released last Friday, Oct. 15, IIO chief civilian director Ronald J. MacDonald determined that although four police officers used significant force against Koehler in their attempts to arrest him—in the form of a conducted energy weapon, or taser, deployed six times, pepper spray and physical blows—Koehler’s violent resistance justified that response.

“There is no suggestion that any of those uses of force caused or contributed to [Koehler]’s death—or indeed caused any significant injury,” MacDonald wrote. “In that sense, the officers used necessary force designed to control [Koehler], without using excessive force that could cause more significant harm.”

An autopsy found Koehler’s heart was enlarged, while toxicology testing discovered cocaine, methamphetamine, THC metabolite and naloxone in the deceased’s system. A pathologist named Koehler’s cause of death as the combined effect of drug toxicity, dilated cardiomyopathy, and struggle during physical restraint.

The IIO is a civilian watchdog tasked with determining whether offences have been committed in police incidents that result in serious harm or death. The agency had been investigating the fatal incident that took place in the Stonesedge Kitchen in Whistler Village on March 8, 2020, after police were called to deal with a disturbance.

Compiling a narrative

The six-page IIO report details a timeline of events that began when Koehler sat down at the restaurant’s bar shortly after 10 a.m. That narrative was crafted from evidence collected during the investigation, including statements from 32 civilian witnesses, six first responders and four witness officers; 
video from CCTV and the cellphone of one witness; police radio recordings, training records of the involved officers and more.

Soon after his arrival, Stonesedge staff and customers reportedly grew concerned by Koehler’s increasingly “abnormal and erratic” behaviour. One employee told Koehler to quiet down, warning him he would have to go if it continued. 

Eyewitness reports corroborate CCTV footage that shows Koehler “gesticulating and apparently shouting or talking aloud to no one in particular,” and walking outside to yell at passersby, MacDonald wrote in the report. Restaurant staff became “sufficiently concerned” for the safety of employees and patrons, and decided to call police.

Three police officers attended the call shortly after 11 a.m., initiating what started as a “calm and unremarkable” interaction despite Koehler’s reluctance to leave the premises.

The encounter quickly became physical when Koehler “snatched” his ID from one officer’s hand. That officer—the subject of the IIO investigation—responded by extending his right arm, presumably in an attempt to grab Koehler's neck or clothing, MacDonald wrote in the report. Koehler took hold of the officer's arm, and a fight immediately ensued.

CCTV video recorded a “violent struggle” that rendered all three officers unable to maintain control of Koehler, who can be seen “throwing the officers off of him,” as “various furniture went flying.”

One officer said he felt his shoulder dislocate after the struggle moved to the floor. That officer deployed a conductive energy weapon (CEW) for the first time to gain control of Koehler, but it appeared ineffective.

Koehler continuously refused officers’ orders to lay on the ground, and, according to evidence from a cellphone video, could be heard responding, “I can’t, it’ll kill me.”

Though footage shows Koehler at one point holding his arms in front of him and gesturing toward the exit, saying, “Hold me like this. I will walk,” the witnessing officer with the injured shoulder told IIO investigators he was unwilling to re-engage physically with Koehler, “as it had not gone well previously" and Koehler’s behaviour remained too unpredictable “to conclude that he was now lucid and reasonable.”

Koehler began walking toward two of the three officers, prompting one to deploy a CEW for the second time, again without any noticeable effect. The report said Koehler “forcefully” overturned restaurant furniture in their direction before a fourth officer arrived on scene in response to a radio call for backup.

One of the initial police officers deployed OC (or pepper spray) in Koehler’s direction, as he continued to resist orders. The fourth officer on scene then attempted to subdue Koehler with two more rounds from a CEW, which video evidence indicates did elicit physical reactions.

The report said Koehler began “wriggling across the floor” toward officers, prompting police to deploy two final CEW cycles that again failed to result in a “noticeable change” in his behaviour.

The fourth officer decided to try and gain physical control of Koehler, moving in and grabbing one arm while a colleague grabbed the other. Though Koehler initially appeared passive, his quick attempts to start fighting again were met several blows delivered by the fourth officer. As the struggle continued, officers and eyewitnesses said Koehler twice reached for and grabbed cutlery, including a dinner knife and fork. Partially-obstructed footage shows one officer punching Koehler's torso, and another striking "repeatedly" with a baton in the direction of Koehler's legs.

After wrestling the fork away from Koehler, officers managed to move his wrists behind his back and place them in handcuffs. The fourth officer told the IIO that while he initially felt Koehler’s hands squeezing his own, he noticed as Koehler’s hands “went limp.” The officer asked his colleagues if Koehler was breathing, and was told Koehler was “good.” Concerned by his unresponsiveness, the officer rolled Koehler into the recovery position. He checked his pulse and airway before immediately calling for Emergency Health Service.

The IIO said police performed CPR until Fire Services and paramedics arrived. Koehler was transported to hospital where he was declared deceased.

Fatality ‘cannot be laid at the feet of the arresting officers’

MacDonald’s report concluded that police “were acting lawfully, in execution of their duty," based on the evidence available.

In regards to Koehler’s one-time offer to leave peacefully if officers would handcuff his hands in front and lead him outside, MacDonald agreed “it would not be reasonable for officers to rely on his brief moments of apparent lucidity to risk re-engaging physically before backup arrived.” 

And, while Koehler did tell police that he would die if he were to get on the ground as they requested, MacDonald said the eerily predictive claims should not have reasonably convinced officers to abandon their efforts, given the circumstances. 

MacDonald acknowledged that Koehler was suffering from several serious health conditions at the time of his death and was higher-risk after consuming narcotics, but said “the officers tasked with resolving the situation and placing him under arrest could not be expected to foresee that the struggle to achieve that would end in his death.

“The fact that it did cannot be laid at the feet of the arresting officers.”

With the IIO’s investigation now closed, the matter will not be referred to Crown counsel for consideration of charges.

In June 2020, Koehler’s family filed a notice of civil claim in B.C. Supreme Court that alleged the four attending RCMP members used “excessive force while performing their unlawful arrest.”

The claim alleged Koehler, the owner of smoking accessories shop 2 Guys with Pipes, had a history of mental health issues that previously brought him into contact with police, and was not violent with the attending officers.

The civil matter remains before the courts.

With a file from Brandon Barrett