Force on trial

Officer found not guilty of assault, but courtroom drama raises more questions about use of force

Former Chico Police Sgt. Scott Ruppel testifies that he “didn’t miss a single day of work” after shooting Tyler Rushing last year and that he was working overtime when a separate choking incident, for which he was being tried, occurred.

Former Chico Police Sgt. Scott Ruppel testifies that he “didn’t miss a single day of work” after shooting Tyler Rushing last year and that he was working overtime when a separate choking incident, for which he was being tried, occurred.

Photo by Ken Smith

Scott Rushing would have preferred to spend Oct. 22 at his home in Ventura, celebrating what would have been his son Tyler’s 36th birthday. Instead, he found himself—for the first time—sitting in the same room as the man who shot his son twice the night he died, former Chico Police Sgt. Scott Ruppel.

It was the first day of Ruppel’s five-day trial on a misdemeanor charge of assault by an officer, a case unrelated to Tyler’s July 23, 2017, killing, for which Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey declared Ruppel’s shooting justified.

Ramsey’s job last week, however, was to prosecute Ruppel for a use-of-force incident that occurred just weeks after Tyler’s death. On Aug. 15 of last year, Ruppel was captured on Officer Alan Gilbert’s body camera choking a handcuffed and seat-belted 21-year-old suspect, William Michael Rowley, in the back seat of a patrol vehicle. On Friday (Oct. 26), after three days of testimony and just a few hours of deliberation, a jury that included several members with ties to law enforcement declared Ruppel—who faced up to $10,000 in fines and one year in county jail—not guilty.

In the wake of last year’s two officer-involved deaths, this case focused more attention on what some perceive as problems within the Chico Police Department—specifically its use of force. The department is the subject of at least three active lawsuits related to officer-involved fatalities.

Rushing attended the entire trial, often accompanied by David Phillips—father of Desmond Phillips, who was killed by Chico police in March 2017—and other community members who’ve called for police reform and justice for victims of police violence.

Evidence presented by both sides largely centered around body camera footage from several officers who responded to two calls to the Overland Court apartment where Rowley lived with his father. Ruppel was not wearing a camera, as CPD sergeants were the last to be equipped with the devices when they were deployed last year.

The prosecution focused on footage of the exact action Ruppel was tried for, a few seconds when he grabs Rowley in a “C-clamp” choke hold and slams him against the back of the vehicle’s cage. The defense built its narrative on film leading up to that moment, in which Rowley is visibly upset, argumentative and brandishes a machete. Rowley later pleaded guilty to felony vandalism and misdemeanor resisting arrest charges for his actions that day.

The choking was captured from the opposite side of the CPD SUV’s back seat. As Ruppel attaches the vehicle’s separate lap and shoulder belts from outside the vehicle, Rowley turns his head to shout in Ruppel’s face; Ruppel then grabs Rowley by the throat and pushes him back with an apparent great deal of force.

Rowley gasps as Ruppel grips his neck, and Ruppel says, “Knock it off.” The view from Gilbert’s camera then moves away from the back seat. Off-camera, Ruppel can be heard exclaiming, “Do you understand? OK, we’re not going to tolerate this!” as Rowley struggles for breath and implores the officer to stop choking him.

None of the officers on the scene reported the incident, and several testified they didn’t realize it was happening at the time. It was discovered and charges against Ruppel filed after investigators with the DA’s office viewed the footage to bolster their case against Rowley.

Ruppel retired from the CPD Sept. 15, just before he was scheduled to be interviewed for the department’s internal affairs investigation into the incident. That fact, and Ruppel’s current employment status, were not presented in court due to a motion filed by the defense before the trial began.

The defense argued that Rowley, though restrained, still presented a threat in that he could have bitten, head-butted or spit on Ruppel. Both sides called expert witnesses on police use of force, both of whom have served as police officers and Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) instructors for the state. Their interpretations of the incident differed greatly, with the prosecution’s witness, David Blake, saying Ruppel’s action violated use-of-force standards. The defense’s expert, Jeffery Martin, claimed he acted reasonably and reflexively to a dangerous situation.

The defense also detailed a later arrest in which Rowley hit his head against a police car’s plexiglass shield after being restrained in the back seat in its effort to prove the suspect was a threat to Ruppel.

During Rowley’s testimony, he admitted that he’d acted like a “jerk” that day, but insisted he had no intention of spitting at or assaulting Ruppel. Rowley said he struggles with anger issues as a result of childhood abuse, and that he’s been receiving mental health assistance since the incident.

Arguably the strongest testimony against Ruppel came from one of his former co-workers, Officer Todd Lefkowitz, who’s served as a use-of-force instructor for the CPD for about 20 years. Lefkowitz testified that a C-clamp hold to the throat can inflict serious damage and that the maneuver is not approved by or taught within the department.

A request submitted to the city for the CPD’s use-of-force policy was denied by the City Attorney’s Office on the basis that “the public interest in nondisclosure of secret investigative techniques or procedures clearly outweighs the public interest in disclosure.”

Tyler Rushing’s name was never mentioned in court, though his killing was vaguely alluded to at the outset of Ramsey’s cross-examination of the defendant.

“About three weeks before [Rowley’s arrest], you had an event that caused some stress in your life,” Ramsey said, and Ruppel replied affirmatively. Ramsey’s subsequent questions revealed that Ruppel had visited a psychological counselor once in the wake of the fatal shooting, and that he immediately returned to active duty.

“I never missed a day of work,” said Ruppel, who was stabbed in the neck with a pen during that encounter, according to Ramsey’s report.

Ramsey said post-trial that it is common protocol for officers to take some administrative leave after a fatal encounter, and that he was previously unaware Ruppel did not. He also said it’s possible Ruppel had regular off-time scheduled before the incident, but he was uncertain if that was the case.

Ramsey said he couldn’t focus more on Tyler’s death during trial because Ruppel’s responses gave him no reason to question him about the psychological impacts of that incident. He added that a look into Ruppel’s 29-year career revealed a clean record.

After the verdict, Rushing—who in June filed a federal wrongful death suit against the city of Chico, Ruppel, Armed Guard Private Protection and a security guard also involved in his son’s killing—said he found footage of the Rowley incident “sickening.” He also said he feels it stands as evidence that Ruppel is capable of resorting to unnecessary violence, which he believes happened in his son’s death.

Rushing, who observed the jury selection process, said he felt the jury was stacked in order to ensure a not guilty verdict, noting the panel included a criminal justice student who said he wants to pursue a career in law enforcement, a former officer of 25 years, and a man—who ended up serving as the jury’s foreman—who stated he was acquaintances with several Chico police officers, including some who were announced as potential witnesses.

“I’m not surprised,” Rushing said of the verdict. “I expected it.”

Ramsey said he allowed those jurors to serve because in preparing for the case, he found “there was not a great deal of sympathy among rank-and-file police officers for Sgt. Ruppel and the actions he took [against Rowley].

“I’d hoped jurors like the veteran officer would help lead the rest to water,” he said. “It’s just very difficult to accomplish when any defendant claims self-defense.”