by Dave Waddell
Scott Ruppel, a former police sergeant involved in two fatal shootings and facing an assault charge for an alleged on-duty choking incident, worked many thousands of hours of overtime during his nearly 20 years at Chico PD.
One year, Ruppel logged more than 700 overtime hours, becoming not only the highest-compensated employee in the city’s largest department but among the top five employees in total compensation in all of Chico municipal government.
Ruppel retired Sept. 15 prior to a scheduled internal affairs interview about police body camera footage allegedly showing the sergeant putting a handcuffed, seat-belted suspect into a stranglehold for eight seconds, said Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey. Ruppel, whose annual CalPERS pension is in the six figures, has pleaded not guilty to the misdemeanor charge of assault under “color of authority.” His next Superior Court date is set for Feb. 28.
Ruppel’s attorney, Brett Sherman, did not return a call to his office seeking comment.
Ramsey said his investigators could find “no connection” between Ruppel’s shooting of Tyler Rushing on July 23 and Ruppel’s alleged choking of William Rowley II three weeks later.
However, Scott Rushing of Ventura, Tyler’s father, says there’s a “definite corollary” between the two episodes.
“It’s an indication that Ruppel is a rogue cop,” Scott Rushing said. “The common thread is Ruppel lost his cool in both circumstances — and both were caught on camera.”
Tyler Rushing, 34, died after first being shot by a private security guard and later by Ruppel in a bathroom at Mid Valley Title and Escrow at Sixth and Main streets in downtown Chico. Ruppel fired twice after Rushing stabbed the sergeant in the neck with a ballpoint pen apparently pulled from another policeman’s pocket during a struggle.
“I question the lethality of a plastic ink pen,” says Scott Rushing.
Both the security guard and Ruppel were cleared of any criminal wrongdoing by DA Ramsey.
Ruppel, who was listed in Ramsey’s complaint as standing 6 feet 3 inches tall and weighing 230 pounds, was involved in a previous fatal shooting on Oct. 14, 2005, when he and four other Chico officers fired a total of 20 rounds at Nathan Butts. A 20-year-old parolee, Butts was fleeing in a vehicle and allegedly drove toward officers. He was hit by six police bullets.
According to the California Public Employee Retirement System, Ruppel, 51, who worked nearly 30 years in law enforcement, currently receives an annual pension of $104,600, which would rise with any future CalPERS cost-of-living increases.
An in-depth story by this writer reported that Ruppel, one of a dozen or so Chico PD sergeants, was the second-highest-paid Police Department employee in 2013.
Even more striking was two years earlier, when Ruppel was actually the highest-compensated person at Chico PD and No. 5 in compensation for the entire municipal workforce. He trailed in compensation only the city attorney, city manager, fire chief and a fire captain who accumulated a massive number of overtime hours.
That year, 2011, Ruppel made more than $57,000 in overtime, while exceeding 700 OT hours. (By way of comparison, a person working a 40-hour week for 50 weeks puts in 2,000 work hours.) Ruppel’s total 2011 compensation, including benefits, was nearly $237,000, or about $5,000 more than then-Police Chief Mike Maloney’s compensation that year.
In 2016, which was Ruppel’s last full year of employment with the city, his regular salary was nearly $103,000, plus making another $39,000 in overtime, according to the Transparent California website.
Research has found that long hours can negatively affect police officers’ judgment and performance, according to an October 2017 article in Governing magazine.
The Chico Police Department’s policy manual section titled “Fitness for Duty” cautions against permitting too much overtime. “Except in very limited circumstances,” it says, “(officers) should have a minimum of eight hours off between shifts. Supervisors should give consideration to reasonable rest periods and are authorized to deny overtime in these cases.”
Ramsey said it was his impression that, after the Rushing shooting, Ruppel was on paid administrative leave for a week to 10 days.
Despite repeated requests from ChicoSol, Chico Police Chief Mike O’Brien would not reveal when Ruppel returned to duty after shooting Rushing. ChicoSol then filed a Public Records Act request to obtain the date of his return from leave, but the request was denied by city officials on the assertion that it was privileged information because the Rushing family has filed a wrongful death claim against the city, as first reported by ChicoSol.
In determining when an officer involved in a shooting is fit to return to duty, O’Brien said he follows Chico PD policies and state government code.
“The key component is the … psychological examination,” O’Brien said. “I will tell you I rely upon that expert medical opinion regarding a return to duty … for any officer involved in (a shooting).”
O’Brien and other city officials also refused ChicoSol’s request for the dates that officers Alex Fliehr and Jeremy Gagnebin returned to duty after shooting Desmond Phillips, a mentally ill young black man, 11 times in his own living room about 11 months ago. Chico patrol officers began wearing body cameras about two weeks after the Phillips killing, and O’Brien recently disclosed in a ChicoSol exclusive that sergeants will soon be sporting the bodycams as well.
Though Ruppel never wore a camera, his involvement in both the shooting and the alleged choking incident was captured on cameras worn by subordinate officers.
Ramsey declined to name the officer who recorded Ruppel allegedly choking suspect Rowley, 21, in the back of a police vehicle on Aug. 15. (Rowley pleaded guilty Nov. 30 to felony vandalism and misdemeanor resisting arrest and received three years of felony probation.)
In a report dated Dec. 20, Ramsey described the incident that resulted in the criminal charge against Ruppel. While in handcuffs and strapped into a seatbelt in the back of a patrol SUV, Rowley screamed in Ruppel’s face, Ramsey wrote.
“… 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,” says the district attorney’s report. “Ruppel told Rowley to ‘knock it off.’ Rowley could be observed and heard grasping 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 stranglehold appears to have lasted approximately eight seconds …”
The video came to Ramsey’s attention Sept. 6 after one of his deputy DAs, who Ramsey declined to name, viewed it while preparing for the Rowley prosecution. Ramsey then contacted O’Brien, who, after viewing the footage, suspended Ruppel, taking away his badge and gun, according to a statement issued by Chico PD.
Scott Rushing said he sees a connection between the Rushing and Rowley incidents in that both men were in some manner “restrained” at the time excessive force was used against them.
Tyler Rushing, who was 5 feet 11 1/2 inches tall and weighed about 175 pounds, was seriously wounded July 23 after assaulting and cutting a private security guard with a glass flower pot and fleeing into the Mid Valley Title bathroom. After Ruppel was unable to convince Rushing to give himself up, officers rammed open the door and entered with a police dog.
Ruppel and two other officers were grasping at Rushing and the dog was at his leg at the time Rushing stabbed Ruppel near the carotid artery with the pen. Ruppel recoiled from the stabbing “nearly out of the room,” then drew his Glock and returned, shooting Rushing twice at very close range, says Ramsey’s report. The rounds came 1 2/3 seconds apart. The first bullet was above Rushing’s upper sternum and the second in the back of his neck.
Rushing is believed to have grabbed the plastic pen, which had a metal tip, out of police officer Cedric Schwyzer’s pocket during the bathroom struggle — made slippery by a mix of Rushing’s blood and water from a broken toilet. Ramsey’s report says bodycam video shows Rushing making no fewer “than five downward stabbing motions.” Schwyzer’s forehead also was cut by a ceramic shard from the toilet that Rushing wielded “like an axe blade,” in the words of Ramsey’s report.
Scott Rushing has characterized the Ruppel and Schwyzer wounds as a “poke” and a “scratch,” respectively.
Ramsey’s report says an autopsy showed “the dog to have successfully bitten (Rushing’s) legs with several minor bites and one major bite” that caused a large gash on the calf of one leg.
“That’s a euphemism for a bite to the bone on a bare leg,” Scott Rushing said of Ramsey’s description.
Asked on what basis he made that claim, Rushing replied: “I saw my son’s body. Painful personal observation of that wound.”
Dave Waddell is news director at ChicoSol.