Borough Park rabbis have issued an appeal for calm in the community this week as it awaits a grand jury’s decision on whether the shooting of a disturbed Orthodox man last week was justified.
In a proclamation posted throughout the neighborhood, 11 of the area’s most prominent rabbis urged residents to "stay away from any demonstrations." The declaration, known as a kol korah, came as Borough Park Assemblyman Dov Hikind, an early critic of the shooting, stepped up his campaign, claiming that witness accounts, which he believes, call into question the police version of events.
"Based on this information, one could be led to believe there was misinformation and a possible coverup," Hikind said. "Obviously, misinformation has been given at the very highest level to the mayor."
Busch, a Long Island native with a history of mental problems, was shot 12 times by four police officers who said he was attacking them with a hammer. But Hikind says the accounts of eight witnesses he has interviewed suggest the police were in no danger. One man who said he witnessed the incident, but did not give his name, said on Hikind’s radio show Saturday night that Busch was too far away from the officers when they fired to pose a threat to them.
"Something smells very bad," Hikind told The Jewish Week Tuesday. The grand jury had not announced a decision by Wednesday afternoon on whether to indict the officers.
The rabbinic injunction against demonstrations came as word spread of a massive vigil planned for after the Sabbath last Saturday night outside the 66th Precinct, where the officers involved are stationed. The cops who opened fire are on modified duty while an internal investigation is conducted. The rally never materialized.
On Friday morning, some dozen rabbinic leaders met with Police Commissioner Howard Safir in Borough Park. The rabbis expressed concern that the police already had decided that the shooting was justified and were looking for evidence to substantiate that conclusion.
"They expressed their abiding and deep concern in the community over the message that the police were right and the investigation will prove it," said Michael Miller, executive vice president of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, who was present at the meeting.
Bearing the names of the grand rebbes of the Satmar and Bobover chasidic sects, as well as the Novominsker rebbe, Yaakov Perlow, president of Agudath Israel of America, the pronouncement called on residents "not to follow the direction of militants, which is not the way of the Torah, and not the way of peace."
Hikind, a former member of the Jewish Defense League, was criticized last week by Safir for what he called incitement of a crowd that had gathered after the shooting. At one point, Hikind stood atop a news van to address an angry crowd, which was chanting "no justice, no peace," and barraged the crowd with questions about the shooting.
But Hikind said he did not believe he was the target of the kol korah.
"I don’t think it was directed at me," he said. "Ninety-nine percent of people feel the way I do. I walk the streets very proudly."
Hikind’s political rival, however, Borough Park Councilman Noach Dear, has spent more of his time appealing for calm than raising questions about the shooting. Borough Park’s chasidim rely on good relations with the police for security and street-closing permits for the Sabbath, Jewish holidays and special community events, and a Jewish security patrol known as Shomrim works closely with the local precinct. But following the shooting, some yeshiva students heckled police at the scene of the tragedy.
"People are thankful for all the good things the Police Department has done on behalf of this community," said Dear. "But that doesn’t negate the fact that they want a thorough investigation that shouldn’t be prejudged."
Dear, a supporter of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, was invited to participate in the meeting with Safir and one at City Hall. Hikind has been feuding since 1995 with Giuliani, whose administration has been besieged by questions about police conduct. But Hikind has not blamed Giuliani’s policies for the incident.
"Someone lost control, and this tragedy resulted," he said. "There’s nothing beyond that. All I want is for the truth to come out."
Political ripples were also evident this week in the different responses of two other Jewish elected officials. Public Advocate Mark Green and city Comptroller Alan Hevesi both called for an investigation of the incident.
Hevesi, through a spokesman, said the probe "should focus on the kind of weaponry necessary to deal with deranged individuals who represent a threat to police officers."
Green, who has been a critic of police conduct, criticized Giuliani for endorsing the police version of the story before an investigation was complete.
"I thought it would have been more prudent of him to let the grand jury find out the facts first," said Green, who recently claimed victory when a panel appointed by Giuliani backed off an attempt to oust him from the line of mayoral succession. The Charter review commission’s efforts were widely construed as intended to help Hevesi win City Hall in 2001.The director of Giuliani’s political action committee, Bruce Teitelbaum, who serves as the mayor’s primary liaison to the Jewish community, said he happened to be in Borough Park on the night of the shooting and was in touch with the mayor and Safir about the feelings of the community.
Teitelbaum also attended a meeting at City Hall between the mayor and community leaders on the morning after the shooting. He said Giuliani sought to clear up numerous rumors that had been floating in the community, including reports that Orthodox medics were not allowed to treat Busch, and that one of the officers was a black woman, adding a racial tinge to the controversy.
"My understanding is that the community wants this matter looked into and that they want assurances that appropriate procedures were followed, and it is my understanding that this is being done," said Teitelbaum, the mayor’s former chief of staff.
Teitelbaum denied any political fallout for the mayor in his anticipated U.S. Senate bid based on the perception that he has allowed excessive police force.
"People are going to vote for the mayor from Borough Park, Bay Ridge or Bensonhurst based on what he’s accomplished and what his record is," he said.