Charges Filed on Former Chico Police Sergeant
District Attorney Mike Ramsey stated today his office has filed a misdemeanor charge of assault against a former Chico Police sergeant for applying a strangle hold on a handcuffed and restrained arrestee last August. The assault was captured on the body camera video of another Chico officer.
Scott Ruppel, 51, a nearly 20-year veteran with the Chico Police, had his attorney appear for him in Butte County Superior Court this afternoon to accept the criminal complaint. No plea was entered and Judge Kimberly Merrifield put the case over for further arraignment on January 24, 2018.
Ramsey said Ruppel had been involved with the arrest of William Michael Rowley II, 21, of Chico, who had earlier been reported to be in a physical fight with his father and vandalizing his father’s apartment on Overland Drive in Chico on August 15, 2017. A responding officer approached the father’s apartment and was confronted by Rowley, who at first refused to come out of his father’s apartment and threated the officer with a machete. Eventually Rowley dropped the machete and at the direction of the responding officer crawled out of the apartment on his stomach. Other responding officers, including then Sgt. Ruppel, arrived and with some difficulty handcuffed Rowley’s hands behind his back. A screaming and profane Rowley was then carried by Ruppel and the original responding officer to a nearby patrol SUV where he was put in the back seat by Ruppel.
Ramsey said as Ruppel was placing a still bellicose Rowley in seatbelt restraints, the other officer went to the other side of the patrol SUV and opened the rear passenger door to assist with any additional necessary seatbelt restrains. It was at this time that officer’s operating body camera captured the scene inside the patrol SUV where Rowley, although still handcuffed behind his back and largely seatbelted in, was told by Ruppel to sit back in the seat. As Ruppel tightened the seatbelt harness around Rowley’s lap and shoulders, Rowley turned toward Ruppel and screamed in Ruppel’s face that he could “sit of his own free will.” In apparent reaction, Ruppel suddenly put his right hand around Rowley’s throat and pushed Rowley against the back of the patrol unit cage with enough force to rattle the cage. Ruppel told Rowley to “knock it off.” Rowley could be observed and heard gasping for air. Ruppel’s face was tensed with what appeared to be anger and his upper body moved into the rear of the SUV continuing to press on Rowley’s throat. Ruppel could then be heard to say “we are not going to tolerate this.” The strangle hold appears to have lasted approximately eight seconds although the later part of the entire sequence was not captured on the body camera video as the wearing officer moved. The audio of Rowley’s gasping was captured however. Rowley was removed from the SUV by Ruppel and other officers and placed in a body WRAP, a canvas restraint suit, and transported to Butte County Jail in a Chico jail transport van.
Ramsey said the body camera video was submitted by Chico Police to the district attorney’s office in the normal course of business as part of the criminal case against Rowley on September 6, 2017 Ramsey said the deputy district attorney assigned the case viewed the tape and alerted Ramsey who also viewed the tape. Ramsey said he called Chico Police Chief Mike O’Brien and left a message for the chief to view the tape. The next day, September 7, Chief O’Brien returned Ramsey’s call and informed the district attorney that O’Brien had reviewed the tape and had immediately placed Ruppel on administrative leave and began an internal investigation. On September 14, the day scheduled by Chief O’Brien for Ruppel’s internal affairs interview, Ruppel retired from the police department and did not submit to an interview.
The district attorney office’s independent criminal investigation into Ruppel’s video-recorded conduct began immediately after his office was alerted to the body camera video and continued despite Ruppel’s retirement. As part of that investigation, district attorney investigators reviewed the investigation and body camera videos in the Tyler Rushing death case involving then Sgt. Ruppel as a shooting officer on July 23, 2017, three weeks before the Rowling incident. Ramsey said the investigators could find no connection back to the Rushing OIS case based on the factually dissimilar cases.
Ramsey noted with some irony that it was body camera videos which provided evidence leading to opposite but factually appropriate conclusions in both cases – a finding of insufficient evidence to pursue a criminal case against Ruppel in the Rushing case and a finding of sufficient evidence to pursue a criminal case against Ruppel in the Rowley case.
The investigation in the Rowley incident continued with forensic processing of the body camera video showing the activity inside the patrol SUV as well as body cam videos from other officers at the scene. Additional interviews with other officers at the scene were also conducted. Of note, the officer wearing the body camera recording the SUV scene did not visually see all that his camera did as his attention was diverted outside of the vehicle.
The interview of the last witness, Rowley, had to be delayed until the final sentencing on his criminal case on November 30, 2017 in which he received three years felony probation with credit for 31 days previously served in county jail. He had earlier pleaded guilty to a felony count of vandalism for the damage to his father’s apartment and a misdemeanor count of resisting arrest for his display of the machete to the first responding Chico officer. His memory of the incident corroborated the video of the strangle hold by Ruppel. He also confirmed he suffered no injury or lasting effects from Ruppel’s squeezing of his throat.
Ramsey said the lack of injury did not prevent his office from filing a charge against Ruppel under Penal Code section 149 which declares that any public officer who, under color of authority, without lawful necessity, assaults any person, is subject to a $10,000 fine and up to a year in county jail. Ramsey said since Rowley was already handcuffed and seatbelted in the back of the police patrol SUV, there appeared to be no lawful necessity in applying an extended strangle hold to Rowley’s neck.
“Ruppel’s actions, while maybe understandable in the face of the verbal abuse being heaped upon him by Rowley, are not justifiable under the law. A modern, professional police force cannot let emotions, no matter how raw, dictate their actions,” Ramsey said. “Jurors are instructed by the judge in assault cases that ‘words, no matter how offensive, and acts that are not threatening, are not enough to justify an assault or battery.’”
Ramsey said Ruppel’s attorney, Brett Sherman, appeared for Ruppel at his arraignment this afternoon pursuant to a Penal Code section which allows an attorney to appear for and in lieu of his client in misdemeanor proceedings.
Ramsey said the body camera video tape will not be released to the public at this point as it is evidence in the case against Ruppel. “It will be eventually released to the public at the conclusion of the case,” Ramsey said.
Attached to this press release is a press release from the Chico Police Department.