A congressman is joining the family of a disturbed Borough Park man killed by police in calling for a federal civil rights probe after a grand jury on Monday declined to indict the four officers involved in the shooting.
"There are lots of reasons to wonder about the local investigation," said Rep. Jerrold Nadler, a Democrat whose district includes Borough Park. "A federal investigation would put those questions to rest."
Gary Busch, who went by his Hebrew name Gidone, was shot 13 times outside his apartment by police who said he was attacking them with a hammer after they responded to a call of a disturbance on Aug. 31. A Long Island native, Busch was twice hospitalized for psychiatric care.
Witnesses have contradicted the version of events given by the officers and Police Commissioner Howard Safir, saying Busch was too far from the officers to pose a threat when they opened fire.
William Muller, a spokesman for Loretta Lynch, U.S. attorney of the Eastern District of New York, which includes Brooklyn, said Lynch "will be reviewing the matter carefully in order to make a determination if any criminal charges might be warranted."
Federal prosecutions of sensitive cases involving police conduct are becoming more commonplace in the criminal justice system, says Harvard University Law Professor Alan Dershowitz.
"It is almost routine," said Dershowitz, adding that a U.S. attorney would only bring a case if there was some sense of misconduct by police or the district attorney.
"One of the reasons we have federal jurisdiction is that police tend to be too close to prosecutors," said Dershowitz. "But [Brooklyn District Attorney Charles J. Hynes] has a good reputation of dealing with the Orthodox Jewish community. That would make it harder to make that kind of claim."
No one has claimed that Busch being an Orthodox Jew had anything to do with the police response. But some community leaders, notably Borough Park Assemblyman Dov Hikind, have insisted the initial response by Safir and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani in supporting the police misled the public, and that the investigation was intended more to bolster the official account than to get to the bottom of the incident.
"The most important thing is that the truth comes out and we learn something for the future," said Hikind.
The grand jury found no basis for Hikind’s claim of a cover-up, but Nadler said the fact that the panel did not issue a report of its findings was further grounds for suspicion. He said he would call on U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno to investigate whether prosecutors "pulled their punches" while presenting the case to the grand jury to avoid an indictment of the officers.
"There is an institutionalized conflict of interest," said the congressman. "The DA’s office works hand in glove with the cops. It is difficult to investigate them."
While relatives of Busch publicly expressed confidence in the investigation, they now say they had reservations throughout the process. "I was very concerned that they had an agenda … to exonerate the officers," said Busch’s brother, Glenn, a Manhattan attorney.
Glenn Busch claimed the prosecutor in charge of the case, Jay Shapiro, expressed sympathy for the police and used the pronoun "we" to refer to both the DA’s office and police officers. Busch also alleged that witnesses complained that prosecutors cut off their testimony and expressed that "the DA’s heart wasn’t in this case."
Shapiro declined to comment on the case.
Hikind insists that not one witness came forward to corroborate the account by Safir: that Busch was striking a police sergeant when he was shot. But Kevin Davitt, a spokesman for Hynes, said Tuesday that while only one witness had described Busch as "lunging" at the police, several others had "used language to describe Busch in a state of frenzy, moving forward in close proximity of the sergeant, which led [the cops] to believe they were in a position to be threatened."
Busch’s family has asked Hynes to make public the grand jury minutes. Davitt said Hynes had made such a request, but they are usually denied by the state Supreme Court.
A federal probe could raise questions of a conflict of interest tied to the expected U.S. Senate race between Giuliani and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton.
If the Clinton administration’s Justice Department orders an investigation, it could prolong the controversy well into the race, possibly creating a campaign issue that might aid the first lady.
The director of Giuliani’s political action committee, Bruce Teitelbaum, said only that "It would be most unfortunate if there were those who would try to politicize this issue."
Clinton’s campaign headquarters did not return calls seeking comment.
Ken Sunshine, a Democratic political consultant with ties to Clinton, said the incident may wind up in the Senate race irrespective of the conflict-of-interest questions.
"The U.S. attorney for the Eastern District has already done a major investigation of the NYPD with some major conclusions," said Sunshine. "The interest of the Justice Department may be part of a continuum of problems. But it’s too quick for the political interpretations."
Safir dismissed the call for a federal probe, defending the grand jury as "deliberate and careful. Thirty witnesses were called and they deliberated for two months. It was not a quick investigation. Nadler and Dov Hikind are pandering for their own political purposes."
Skepticism over the state probe was not shared by Jewish groups.
"There was a thorough, independent investigation of the shooting which concluded that the police actions were justified," said the director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, Michael Miller. "Nevertheless, we hope that the Police Department reviews its procedures and makes any necessary revisions to ensure that similar tragedies will not occur in the future."
Howie Katz, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, said "the grand jury did their job." But Katz echoed the sentiment that the case called for reviews in police procedure.
A stronger stance was taken by Agudath Israel of America, a network of synagogues, yeshivas and programs throughout North America.
Citing "troubling questions" about the sequence of events that led to the shooting, Agudath Israel called for an "evaluation of the adequacy of the [Police Department’s] own internal policy and procedures for dealing with an incident of this nature. … We now await the departmentís own internal investigation of this incident."
Safir said that investigation was complete and "consistent with the grand jury’s findings that our cops acted within the law and police guidelines."