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FIGHT BETWEEN 2 OFFICERS SUBJECT OF POLICE PROBE

A fistfight between two Buffalo police officers on Thanksgiving Day landed one man in the hospital and left the other facing criminal charges.

Officer Miguel A. Rivera, 36, suffered a black eye, back pain and a swollen forehead, lips and right hand. He was treated in Erie County Medical Center and released.

Officer Leo McGrath, 38, was arrested and charged with third-degree assault, a misdemeanor, and second-degree harassment, a violation. McGrath was not injured during the assault.

Buffalo police said they instructed Sheriff's Department officials to have McGrath spend the night in the Erie County Holding Center, but a Sheriff's Department sergeant ignored their request, released him from custody and issued him an appearance ticket.

The fight occurred Thursday afternoon when police say McGrath attacked Rivera in the parking lot of the Central District Police Station, 695 Main St., while both officers were on duty. Rivera reportedly had a "strong odor of alcohol" on his breath, according to senior police officials, and had to be restrained after the fight. Both men have been suspended with pay.

Police officials said Tuesday that an internal investigation was under way to determine whether departmental charges would be filed in the case.

H. McCarthy Gipson, superintendent of the Sheriff's Department's Jail Management Division, said he is also investigating why deputies released McGrath from the Holding Center.

"It's an extremely unfortunate situation," said Deputy Police Commissioner Mark E. Blankenberg. "We're certainly doing an in-depth investigation to get to the root of this and make sure conduct like this doesn't happen again.

"We're professionals. We're supposed to be above this kind of conduct."

Police said McGrath confronted Rivera at about 4:10 p.m. when their work shifts overlapped.

McGrath is accused of punching Rivera at least twice in the face, knocking him to the ground. Witnesses said about six officers then restrained Rivera to keep him from fighting back.

Inspector Patrick G. Stafford and Lt. Carl Terranova of the department's Professional Standards Division were called to the scene.

"When we got there, (Rivera) was out of control, so much so that he was being physically restrained" by other officers, Stafford said. "(Rivera) was yelling and hollering and acting inappropriately. I smelled a strong odor of alcohol on (Rivera's) breath. If it's true that he was drinking, it will be dealt with with administrative charges."

Police officials decided that McGrath should be arrested.

According to police officials, Central District Lt. Danny Williams told Sheriff's Sgt. Kevin Lynch to keep McGrath in jail overnight. However, sheriff's officials said Lynch signed McGrath's appearance ticket and released him after obtaining permission from his watch commander, Capt. Thomas Vaughan.

McGrath was arraigned Friday and released on his own recognizance. He was ordered to appear again in City Court on Dec. 13.

Gipson defended the actions of his officers and denied that McGrath was released from jail because of his "connections." He said that Lynch twice called the police shift officer to ask whether McGrath could be released but that his calls were not returned.

"We didn't get a definitive word that they didn't want him released," Gipson said. "His charges would make him eligible for an appearance ticket, and the fact that he's a police officer would make placing him in the general inmate population a concern of ours. . . . I don't think he got out based on his connections."

e-mail: vthomas@buffnews.com

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