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Decorated Buffalo officer charged with assault, accused of tripping suspect

A decorated Buffalo police officer arrested Tuesday on misdemeanor assault charges allegedly tripped a defendant at Central Booking, and a cut on the defendant's forehead required five stitches to close, according to a Buffalo police source.

Officer Joseph Hassett, 31, was charged with two counts of third-degree assault and one count each of official misconduct and second-degree offering a false instrument for filing.

The man he is accused of assaulting, Timothy Staton Jr., 27, was taken into custody on March 18 on a mix of misdemeanor and felony drug possession charges.

"We do not tolerate inappropriate or criminal behavior," Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda said after Hassett's arrest. "We have and will continue to hold our officers accountable for their actions."

Hassett turned himself in to the department's internal affairs investigators Tuesday, Derenda said. He is scheduled to be arraigned on Sept. 5 in Buffalo City Court.

"Officer Hassett is innocent of the allegations," said defense attorney Timothy W. Hoover. "The limited use of force was entirely justified against a physically resistant, aggressive and non-compliant arrestee.

"We look forward to trying the case in court and obtaining Officer Hassett a complete acquittal and a return to duty as a Buffalo police officer," Hoover said.

Hassett, who joined the Buffalo Police in 2009, made headlines in 2013 when he was wounded in the knee by gunfire during a foot chase and still helped apprehend the suspect in that case. Hassett received the Medal of Honor, the Police Department’s highest distinction.

According to police records of the March incident, officers noticed Staton parked in a van on Jefferson Avenue near where East North Street dead ends. The van was more than 12 inches from the curb, police said.

When Hassett pulled up next to the van, Staton rolled down the window and Hassett "noticed a strong odor of marijuana along with a white cloud of smoke," according to a police report.

Hassett asked Staton to step out of the vehicle and noticed a jar of what appeared to be marijuana in the driver's side door handle and a plastic bag containing "white rocks" on the driver's side floor. A second officer recovered a burning marijuana blunt and an open bottle of Remy Martin, in addition to a red cup containing liquor, according to police records.

Staton was brought back to Central Booking. A police report said Staton "became combative" with officers and "refused commands and taken to the ground." It adds that Staton was taken to Erie County Medical Center where he was treated and released.

A police source said Hassett deliberately tripped Staton while in Central Booking, which left him with a cut on his forehead.

District Attorney John Flynn said Tuesday that the incident came to light during the prosecution of the alleged victim in the case on the original criminal charges. He said Staton's attorney requested the District Attorney's Office provide any videos that might exist in connection with his client's arrest.

The assistant district attorney who reviewed the video provided by the Police Department was disturbed by what he saw, and he brought it to Flynn's attention. Flynn would not comment on what the video contains but said he also was disturbed by what he watched and he contacted the police commissioner.

Derenda said Hassett was suspended for 30 days without pay on May 30 while an internal investigation was underway. He remains suspended with pay. He also said the investigation is ongoing.

Hoover said his client properly reported the incident and indicated the department was aware of it well before his suspension in late May.

Flynn, however, said the information Hassett provided did not match what was seen in the video. Derenda said Buffalo police learned of the true nature of the incident on May 26 and suspended Hassett four days later.

Derenda also said that, should Hassett be found not guilty of the criminal charges, he still could face departmental charges in connection with the incident.

In the 2013 altercation, Hassett had received a tip about a man with a gun and pursued the suspect on foot near Eggert Road and LaSalle Avenue.

The suspect, Jeffrey Thomas, then 22, of West Seneca, was slowed by a fence and fired a shot that struck Hassett below the knee. The officer grabbed Thomas and held him until his partner could handcuff him.

Thomas was later sentenced to 7½ years in prison.

Hassett also was nearly run over by a suspect on Seneca Street in November 2010.

According to a Buffalo News article, Hassett saw a driver sideswipe a parked car. But when Hassett tried to stop the driver, he allegedly tried to run down Hassett. Hassett opened fire twice at the driver's SUV which crashed into a house on Indian Church Road. Prosecutors at the time said the driver set fire to the SUV, in an attempt to hide the 100 pounds of marijuana inside.

The driver, Darren McCabe, served 18 months in prison before being paroled.

Staton's criminal case was resolved May 30, Flynn said, when he was found guilty of disorderly conduct.

Both Flynn and Derenda noted the difficulty of being in a position of arresting and prosecuting a police officer.

"It's not a good day when you arrest one of your own officers," Derenda said. "Ninety-nine point nine percent are doing a great job."

"No matter what some people think, roughing up and abusing a suspect is wrong," Flynn said.

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