Trial begins Wednesday for RPD officer charged with assault

Michael Sippel trial.jpg
Rochester Police Officer Michael Sippel is seen in Monroe County Court on Wednesday, May 15, 2019. Sippel is facing one count of third-degree assault, a misdemeanor, for allegedly using excessive force during an arrest on May 5, 2018. (Photo: Pool camera, D&C)

Rochester, N.Y. (WHAM) - The trial of a Rochester police officer accused of using excessive force to arrest a man in May 2018 began Wednesday morning.

Officer Michael Sippel is facing one count of third-degree assault, a misdemeanor. Sippel and another officer, Spenser McAvoy, were accused of beating Christopher Pate when he was stopped by the two officers on May 5, 2018. The stop ended up being a case of mistaken identity.

Pate said he provided identification after being prompted twice, but was still grabbed, had a stun gun used on him, was put in handcuffs and punched in the face. All charges against him were eventually dropped. Pate has undergone surgery for bone fractures to his face as a result of the officer's use of force against him.

The Monroe County District Attorney's Office charged Sippel and McAvoy in the case and presented evidence to a grand jury. The grand jury chose to indict Sippel but not McAvoy.

This will be a bench trial, meaning that there will be no jury present in the courtroom. Monroe County Court Judge Thomas Rainbow Morse will preside over the case and issue a decision at a later date.

“No one is above the law. Not law enforcement, not him,” said Monroe County Assistant District Attorney Gina Clark during opening arguments. Clark looked at Sippel when she said "him." She went on to describe what she called an abuse of power by Sippel during the stop.

Sippel is being represented by attorney Clark Zimmermann, who said his client tried to avoid using force. He added that Pate responded to an initial request for identification by saying, "I don’t have to show you [expletive]."

There will be a total of 30 witnesses in the trial. One of the major pieces of evidence being shown in court will be the body-worn camera video showing Pate being stopped and everything that happened afterward.

During the first day of trial, Officer McAvoy spent most of the time on the stand. He testified that he was riding in the passenger seat on that May 2018 day and Office Sippel was driving.

McAvoy said he was the one who initially saw Pate and thought he was the suspect, James Barrett, they were looking for.

Body-worn camera video purportedly shows McAvoy approaching Pate asking for his ID. Pate continues walking as the video shows McAvoy putting on his gloves. When he touched Pate, his body camera turns off. McAvoy testified that it was at that time he saw Pate's EBT card and realized he was not the man they were looking for.

When he turned his body camera back, the video appears to show him walking toward the unmarked police car he and Sippel were in. The video purportedly showed Sippel had gotten out of the car and started to follow Pate, continuing to ask for ID.

The back-and-forth appeared to continue as Sippel and McAvoy purportedly tried to restrain Pate. The video shows him on the ground, his face blooded. It purportedly shows Sippel eventually using a taser on Pate to restrain him.

The body-worn camera footage continued following the arrest, but Judge Morse ruled Wednesday that most of what was captured after Pate's arrest does not add value to the case. He has yet to rule if body camera footage from the hospital will be allowed to be used as evidence.


***Warning: Strong language used***

McAvoy's testimony will continue on Thursday morning.

13WHAM's Kelsie Smith will be covering this trial in court. You can follow the developments by following her on Twitter.