The police shooting of a hammer-wielding man in the Orthodox enclave of Borough Park exploded with political ramifications this week, threatening to erode support for Mayor Rudolph Giuliani in one of his staunchest bases.
Hundreds of chasidim on Monday and Tuesday nights took to the streets, many of them criticizing the officers who killed 31-year-old Gary (Gidone) Busch in a hail of bullets after he charged at them with a claw hammer.
The questions about excessive police force recalled the debate that embroiled the mayor and the city earlier this year following the shooting of an unarmed African immigrant in the Bronx. That incident was largely ignored in Orthodox neighborhoods like Borough Park, where confrontations with police are rare.
"Rudy Giuliani received well over 90 percent of the vote in Borough Park in his campaigns for mayor," said Ezra Friedlander, a politically active chasid who is planning to run for City Council in Borough Park. "He is extremely popular for his anti-crime initiatives … but people are questioning some of his policies vis-a-vis the conduct and support that he gives police officers.
"They feel some of the police are out of hand and there’s no leadership coming from the top to stop this sort of behavior."
The incident could prove politically damaging for Giuliani as he is expected to square off with First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton in an all-but-announced clash for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Daniel P. Moynihan.
"He has worked the Jewish community assiduously," said Democrat political consultant Hank Sheinkopf, "but this is potentially trouble."
The shooting has created a rift in Borough Park between those who justify the shooting, or are reserving judgment until the investigation is complete, and those who see the incident as an act of excessive force. Two Jewish elected officials in Borough Park have come down on opposite sides of the debate.
City Councilman Noach Dear has indicated that thus far, it appears the police acted appropriately, while Assemblyman Dov Hikind has all but labeled the act excessive. Hikind questioned the procedures used by the officers, who responded to a 911 call to find Busch, wearing tefillin, violently swinging a hammer in his apartment. Busch was hospitalized three times for mental illness.
"The police knew they were dealing with someone with emotional problems," said Hikind. "You can’t treat that person the same as an armed robber."
The assemblyman said an electronic device used to stun assailants, known as a Tazer, had been allocated to the 66th Precinct in Borough Park but was not working.
"This could have saved his life," said Hikind.
The divergent opinions reflect the markedly different relationships between the two politicians and the mayor. While Dear is a supporter of Giuliani, Hikind has been feuding with the mayor since a disagreement in 1994. Dear was part of a delegation of Borough Park leaders invited to City Hall Tuesday morning for a briefing, while Hikind was excluded.
Hikind said he did not blame Giuliani for what he described as deficiencies in police procedure. But he did criticize the administration for alleged failure to send a high-level official, such as a deputy mayor, to the scene.
Dear said the commissioner of the Community Assistance Unit, Rosemary O’Keefe, was in Borough Park Monday night.
City Police Commissioner Howard Safir later criticized Hikind for what he called "agitating" the crowd at a gathering following the shooting. Hikind says he prevented the crowd from violence, and should have been commended.
The night after the shooting, an air of tension was still evident on 46th Street as throngs of chasidic youth lined the street. A single memorial candle marked the spot where Busch was felled, and yeshiva students leaned close to the brick facade of a home adjoining his apartment to survey bullet holes.
"The police are obnoxious to us and treat us like adversaries," said a man who gave his name only as Jay. "It’s part of basic police culture, but it’s worse in Borough Park."
"They had no right to shoot him," said Abraham Friedman, 14, a student at the Bobover Yeshiva. "If a man who was not a policeman shot someone else 12 times, you tell me what will be his end."
"The mayor doesnít come here to speak to us," said a middle-aged chasidic man who did not give his name. "We want justice, and he is already saying the police were right."
When police officers appeared on the scene to direct traffic clogged by news vans, a group of chasidic children followed the officers, whooping loudly and chanting, "We want justice."
The Rev. Al Sharpton said he had been asked to come to Borough Park to protest the shooting, and appeared there briefly Tuesday, promising to hold a prayer vigil Sunday at the site of the killing.
"From the facts known now it appears to me the shooting of Mr. Busch is reminiscent of the case of Eleanor Bumpurs," said Sharpton at a Harlem press conference with Andy Stettner, president of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice. Bumpurs was a mentally ill woman shot by police 15 years ago while brandishing a knife.
"There still seems to be a policy to shoot first and ask questions later," said Sharpton, calling for a federal investigation of the Busch case.
Giuliani and Safir have strongly defended the actions of the officers who opened fire on Busch, a Long Island native who moved to Borough Park after becoming Orthodox in the mid-1990s.
"He had been smoking marijuana, possibly laced with PCP or another drug," Safir told a group of synagogue leaders at a meeting Tuesday morning, scheduled to discuss security for the High Holy Days. Safir also said Busch was responsible for a violent hammer attack on a motorist the previous day, although Busch apparently was not arrested or charged in that incident.
"The police officers did what they were supposed to do," said Safir, speaking at UJA-Federation headquarters in Midtown, detailing how police responded to a 911 call to confront Busch wielding a hammer. "He was asked to cease and desist, and he refused when the shooting occurred. They used non-lethal force at first."
Safir and Giuliani said the police at first used a pepper spray to subdue Busch, and opened fire only when he repeatedly struck with the claw end of the hammer an officer who had knelt to assist a fellow officer who had stumbled.
Brooklyn District Attorney Charles J. Hynes announced Wednesday that he would present evidence before a grand jury on Sept. 9 to determine whether charges would be filed against the officers. The response of Jewish leaders to the shooting is similar to the posture taken last February following the police shooting of Amadou Diallo, the unarmed African immigrant in the Bronx. Then, as now, the groups called for a thorough probe but did not join in the chorus of criticism of the Giuliani administration, instead expressing confidence and support.
"If the investigation identifies anything that can be done to prevent similar tragedies, we have every confidence that Mayor Giuliani and Police Commissioner Howard Safir will take the steps necessary to do so," Michael Miller and Gedale Horowitz, executive vice chairman and president, respectively, of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, said in a statement.
Howard Teich, president of the Metropolitan Region of the American Jewish Congress, said the shooting raised questions about whether "substantial changes" should be made in the training police receive. But he said the question of "whether the police action was commensurate with the threat … can only be resolved by intensive investigation into the whole tragic event."
Representatives of the JCRC, Anti-Defamation League and American Jewish Committee toured Borough Park on Tuesday, visiting the shooting site, the local police precinct, Jewish community council and Hikind’s office.
"We extended our hand to the community," said Miller of JCRC, who said two staffers of his agency went to the scene shortly after the shooting and stayed well into the night.
Howie Katz, regional director of the ADL, said he left Borough Park "with the sense that there are questions raised by the amount of force used. But we will not rush to judgment. It’s very easy for those of us who weren’t there and didn’t see our colleague lying on the ground, being struck repeatedly with a hammer, to say what we would have done."
Because of the mayor’s close ties to the Borough Park community, his reaction to the crisis was closely scrutinized. While Giuliani had not visited the neighborhood as of Wednesday, he summoned several community leaders to a City Hall meeting shortly after the incident.
The impact of the incident on Giuliani’s relations with Jews (shown by polls to be among his top ethnic supporters) as he prepared to launch a likely Senate bid is unclear. Following the Diallo shooting, Giuliani’s approval rating among Jews plummeted, although it has since risen to 70 percent in most polls.
Sheinkopf, the political consultant, predicts that most Jews will not make up their minds until after an investigation is completed.
"Jews have potentially been very suspicious of the police, especially after [the] Crown Heights [riots]," he said. "Giuliani is the one who rectified that. But if the investigation is seen as a fraud, that’s when you will see fireworks." Staff writer Stewart Ain contributed to this report.