On Tuesday, Judge Thomas Morse found Officer Michael Sippel guilty of assault in the third degree. He faced one count of assault for the beating of Christopher Pate. Sippel waived his right to a jury trial, so a sole judge heard the case.
Tuesday’s decision was shocking to some. The prosecutor on the case said one piece of evidence made all the difference.
“Body camera footage was the most important piece of evidence in this case. I think everybody can see that,” assistant district attorney Gina Clark said.
During the trial, Officer McAvoy and Pate were the key testimonies, as well as the body camera footage from the day of the incident which was partially admitted into evidence. Both the defense and the prosecution said they found the body camera footage worked in their favor.
Mark Foti, Christopher Pate’s attorney, said this ruling is unusual.
“What happened here is extraordinarily rare. It’s unusual that an officer is not only charged but it’s determined that he’s guilty based on the evidence that exists,” said Foti.
Last year, Pate said he was attacked by the two officers after being stopped on Fulton Avenue when officers believed he was a wanted man. In his testimony, Pate said even after he proved his identity, the officers persisted and beat him. Pate suffered fractures to his skull and jaw as a result. Pate was also arrested for disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. Those charges were later dropped.
Both officers- Officer Sippel and his partner Officer Spenser McAvoy- were suspended without pay after the attack but a grand jury only indicted Sippel on a count of assault in a third degree- a misdemeanor. Following the indictment, advocates for Pate were upset, saying that both officers should have faced felony assault charges.
Reverend Lewis Stewart was one of the first people to rally around Christoper Pate after Pate was beaten last May. He was also not expecting Sippel to be found guilty.
“It is a stunning victory for the community. It is historical in its significance because not too many times in the past in Rochester has a police officer been indicted and sentenced for police misconduct relative to an assault charge,” said Stewart.
The main issue both sides argued throughout the trial was whether or not Officer Sippel had the right to approach and arrest Christopher Pate. Sippel’s attorney said he did because Sippel thought he was dealing with a wanted man, James Barrett. Before giving the decision on Tuesday, the judge explained the importance of looking at this case as strictly what happened between Officers McAvoy and Sippel and Christopher Pate on May 5, 2018, and the legal issues surrounding that.
“This case has never been about whether police officers can use physical force to effect a valid arrest- they can. This case has never been about whether citizens can resist arrest whether it is authorized or not- they can’t,” said Judge Morse
Sippel’s attorney was also shocked but in the opposite way. He said this decision could have a chilling effect on how officers do their job.
“They’re gonna be less willing to approach people to use force because they’re gonna be afraid they’re gonna be charged criminally,” defense attorney Clark Zimmermann said.
Stewart also said it could change how police officers do their jobs- but he thinks that’s a good thing.
“It will have a chilling effect on the behavior of some cops not to engage in police misconduct because they are not above the law,” said Stewart.
But Foti said for Pate, this is justice.
“It ended with an outcome that confirms it wasn’t fair what took place and that he didn’t deserve to have a facial fracture, that he didn’t deserve what happened to him to take place,” Foti said.
Foti said he’s filed a notice of claim to move ahead with a civil case now that the criminal trial is over. He said today’s decision will have an impact on the possible claims.
“My analysis related to the civil case is that we have a very strong civil case if ultimately we proceed with that,” he said.
The Rochester Police Department’s interim police chief said this in a statement on Tuesday:
“As Interim Chief, I respect the decision of the court. As Interim Chief, I am also limited as to what I can comment on in relation to the outcome of the criminal court case, as there are internal departmental proceedings involving Michael Sippel in which I am responsible for rendering the final disposition. With respect to the court’s decision, the internal departmental proceeding will resume as it had prior to the criminal court case commencing, during which Michael Sippel will remain on suspension from the Rochester Police Department.
The men and women of the Rochester Police Department will continue to protect and serve the citizens of Rochester with PRIDE; and they will do so today, tomorrow, and the day after that. This is evident by the great work that is done daily by the men and women of this organization.”
The Rochester Police Locust Club said this in a statement on Tuesday:
“We are shocked and disappointed in the decision out of City Court today. However, since the internal disciplinary process is still ongoing and there are potential appeals of the criminal charges, we are going to refrain from any further statements on the matter to protect the rights of Officer Sippel.”