There is exactly one Buffalo cop whose past conduct has so damaged his credibility that the Erie County District Attorney’s office refuses to put him on the witness stand.
His name is Joseph R. Hassett.
In an April 2019 letter to Buffalo Police Commissioner Byron Lockwood, DA John Flynn wrote that Hassett, 34, suffered from “irremediable problems of credibility.” As a result, Flynn wrote, he would “no longer call Officer Hassett as a witness in any pending or future criminal action.”
In an arbitration proceeding that began two months later, Hassett’s employer, the City of Buffalo, sought to fire him. The city’s attorneys argued Hassett had been “untruthful” and “no punishment, other than termination” would resolve the dilemma of a police officer the DA would not permit to take the witness stand.
And yet Hassett is still a cop.
Not only that, he’s patrolling the streets. In early September, he was part of the detail dispatched to police a tense confrontation between Black Lives Matter demonstrators and unruly patrons at a Hertel Avenue bar.
Hassett’s record of complaints, and the lack of meaningful consequences to his career, make him something of a poster child for critics of the department’s contractually prescribed disciplinary process.
“Officer Hassett should no longer be employed with the BPD, and he certainly should not be working directly with community members,” Erin Carman, co-chair of the Buffalo Police Advisory Board, told Investigative Post.
The department’s Internal Affairs unit has received 21 complaints against Hassett in 11 years, resulting in two suspensions and two unspecified “reprimands.”
Among the incidents:
- A car accident on duty that cost the city a hefty settlement in a civil lawsuit. His punishment: one day’s suspension without pay.
- Firing his gun twice at a car driving away from him, in violation of departmental policy. His punishment: a conference with the commissioner.
- Allegedly providing false information to a fellow officer about an altercation at a bar where Hassett was working off-duty as security, leading to a man’s arrest. His punishment: a reprimand.
- Allegedly injuring a man during an arrest and falsifying the incident report. His punishment: none.
- Tripping a handcuffed prisoner, causing injury, and allegedly lying about the incident to superiors. His punishment: 30 days suspension without pay.
Hassett’s attorney, Rodney Personius, said Hassett’s alleged misconduct and dishonesty have been examined by an arbitrator, a judge and a federal grand jury.
“On each occasion, he has been, in all respects, exonerated,” Personius told Investigative Post.
Carman, of the Buffalo Police Advisory Board, said the lack of accountability underscores the need for the department to change its discipline process.
“The Officer Hassett case exemplifies the need for a total rehaul of BPD disciplinary structure,” Carman said. “[That] would require a change in the existing system of checks and balances that currently fails to address issues of excessive use of force by the BPD.”
The Staton incident
Hassett’s most infamous transgression occurred in March 2017, when he tripped a handcuffed prisoner in Central Booking, then jumped on his back, according to video of the incident. The prisoner, Timothy Staton, was sent to the hospital for his injuries.
Hassett contended he was justified in his use of force to subdue Staton. The department suspended Hassett 30 days without pay.
Flynn charged Hassett with two counts of third-degree assault, as well as official misconduct and “making a punishable false written statement” about the incident.
A judge ruled Hassett not guilty on all counts. Staton has filed a civil suit against Hassett and the city.
Not long after the judge cleared Hassett of the criminal charges, Flynn sent his letter to the police commissioner, barring Hassett from giving testimony.
The DA keeps a list of 43 law enforcement officers, including 17 Buffalo police officers, whose past conduct or legal record might be used to compromise their testimony in court. The DA is obliged by law to alert defense attorneys if he plans to put one of those officers on the stand.
Hassett is the only law enforcement officer on the list banned outright from giving testimony.
In response to Flynn’s edict, the department relegated Hassett to desk duty, where he would have no occasion to make arrests the DA would refuse to prosecute.
But Hassett and the police union filed a grievance appealing the desk duty assignment and demanding he be reassigned to patrol duty. The city’s attorneys, appearing on behalf of the police department, argued Hassett should be fired.
An arbitrator heard the case in March of this year and ruled in Hassett’s favor in July. Hassett was permitted to return to street duty. He remains assigned to the Neighborhood Engagement Team.
The decision did more for Hassett than save his job. Hassett’s return to street duty offers abundant opportunities for overtime that desk duty does not, because the street is where arrests are made. Arrests incur overtime, including pay for court appearances.
In 2016, for example, Hassett pulled down $108,942 as a patrol officer. In 2017, the year of the Staton incident, he earned $118,580.
In 2018, while under investigation, his pay dropped to just shy of $80,000. In 2019, while on desk duty, he made about $88,000.
Checkered disciplinary record
The Staton incident was not the only red flag the DA identified in Hassett’s record.
Flynn — who would not comment for this article — wrote to Lockwood that his decision was based on “a comprehensive review of Internal Affairs files and federal grand jury minutes relating to the conduct of Officer Joseph Hassett.”
The DA’s office had privileged access to Hassett’s personnel records, which at the time were barred from public review by section 50-a of the state civil rights law. This summer the state Legislature repealed 50-a, which allowed Investigative Post to examine a portion of Hassett’s disciplinary history.
In 2010, his rookie year, Hassett had a car accident on duty, leading to a civil lawsuit that cost the city $387,877. Hassett’s punishment: He was docked one day’s pay.
Later that same year, on Seneca Street near Cazenovia Park, Hassett fired two shots at a car driving away from him, a violation of department policy defining reckless use of a firearm. A car chase ensued, ending in the suspect’s vehicle, on fire, crashing into a private residence. The suspect ultimately pleaded guilty to possession of about 100 pounds of marijuana found in his burning car, according to reports.
Hassett’s punishment: a talking-to by superiors.
In September 2014, Hassett and his partner, John Beyer, apprehended 26-year-old Keith Worthy at a gas station at the corner of South Park Avenue and Louisiana Street. The officers then took Worthy and his car into the nearby Commodore Perry housing projects, according to sources who have viewed the investigations that followed.
The officers charged Worthy with trespassing on public housing property, according to the incident report. They also charged Worthy with leaving his car — which had been at a gas pump before they arrested him and moved it — unattended and blocking a roadway.
All the charges against Worthy eventually were dropped.
The Internal Affairs investigation into the incident took four years to resolve. The finding: The complaint was “not sustained.” Neither officer was punished.
Hassett was called to testify in January 2016 before a federal grand jury investigating him for allegations of excessive use of force. According to the DA and the city’s attorneys, Hassett’s grand jury testimony regarding the Worthy arrest, as well as another incident on his disciplinary record, contradicted the arrest reports.
“You can’t tell — there can’t be two truths,” Lt. Andre Lloyd, of the police department’s Internal Affairs Division, testified in Hassett’s arbitration. “One has to be truth and one has to be a lie.”
Capt. Jeffrey Rinaldo, a police department spokesman declined to comment on Hassett’s arbitration and return to street duty.
Hassett, through his attorney, also declined to speak to Investigative Post.
Departmental discipline process
In theory, disciplining and firing officers is a duty granted to the police commissioner in the City Charter. In practice, the police contract effectively takes that power from the commissioner, ceding it to third-party arbitrators in a process that until recently was concealed from public scrutiny.
In a four-year period, between 2014 and 2017, Internal Affairs looked into 11 complaints against Hassett alleging excessive use of force. All but one, the Staton incident, ended in findings of “not sustained.”
Four of the other 10 complaints brought against Hassett — for violations of procedure, misconduct and harassment — also ended in findings of “not sustained.”
“Not sustained” means the evidence available is inconclusive, according to the department’s manual of procedures. It signifies neither guilt nor innocence.
When Internal Affairs investigators collect what they deem credible evidence of misconduct, they bring it to the police commissioner. If the commissioner wants to fire or discipline an officer, he presents the reasons for doing so in writing within a year of the incident.
That kicks off negotiations between the union and the department. The union’s lawyers might bargain for a suspension or reprimand where the officer clearly has some culpability. Or, if they believe the charges are unwarranted, they might call for a formal review before a state labor arbitrator.
That’s what happened in Hassett’s case. In this case the arbitrator was Jeffrey Selchik. The Albany attorney charges $2,200 a day to mediate labor disputes, according to his resume, posted with the state Public Employees Relations Board.
A complaint “sustained”
The Worthy incident — specifically, the allegation that the officers misrepresented the incident and invented the charges — did not result in any disciplinary consequences for Hassett or his partner.
But the incident contributed to Flynn’s poor opinion of Hassett’s credibility, according to former Assistant District Attorney Nicholas Texido.
Texido prosecuted Hassett in the Staton case. During Hassett’s trial, Texido asked Hassett about the Worthy arrest under cross-examination. Hassett told the court he didn’t remember the details.
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Texido also asked Hassett about a 2014 altercation with a party of people outside a bar at Cedar Street and Myrtle Avenue, where Hassett was working off-duty as a security guard. The group was trying to enter the bar, Texido informed the court, but Hassett told them the bar was closed.
An argument ensued. Hassett eventually summoned an on-duty officer to the scene. Hassett told the officer three members of the party entered the bar illegally, and they were charged with trespassing. One of the three, Samuel Figueroa, filed a complaint with Internal Affairs.
Internal Affairs, after taking testimony and reviewing evidence, determined Hassett’s signed deposition was false: The three never set foot in the bar. The complaint was “sustained” and Hassett was reprimanded.
The nature of the reprimand and its consequences to Hassett’s career, if any, are not specified on Hassett’s disciplinary card.
However, the incident was explored by the federal grand jury looking into Hassett’s record in January 2016, according to arbitration records. Hassett told the grand jury the three never entered the bar.
In this year’s arbitration proceedings, the city’s attorneys offered the incident as evidence of Hassett’s dishonesty: His account to the grand jury contradicted his contemporaneous, sworn statements.
According to Texido — who now works for the Erie County Bar Association’s assigned counsel program — this incident also contributed to Flynn’s decision to bar Hassett from testifying in court.
Texido told Investigative Post that Flynn took a keen interest in Hassett’s prosecution for the Staton incident. As a result, Flynn was aware of the credibility-compromising material Texido discovered in Hassett’s personnel file.
“You have an individual with a repeated, documented track record of acting outside his authority and being untruthful about it after the fact,” Texido said.
“I think we are obliged by our oath as officers of the court to call attention to that.”