The life of Gidone Busch was "needlessly taken away in a hail of bullets" by police who gunned him down in a 1999 incident in Borough Park, his family’s lawyer told a jury in Brooklyn Federal Court Tuesday.
At the opening of a civil suit against New York City, attorney Myron Beldock disputed the claim by five police officers that they fired in self-defense because Busch, who has a history of mental illness, was attacking them with a hammer.
"Our position is that nobody needed a gun for Gary that day," said Beldock, using Busch’s English name. "All they had to do was back off."
But a lawyer for the city, Ingrid Box, insisted the cops had seconds to react as Busch raised his hammer after fleeing from
his 46th Street apartment.
"The whole thing happened in a little more than four minutes," Box told the jury of six men and four women before Judge Sterling Johnson. "The officers had 6.5 seconds to decide whether to fire their weapons … They acted out of fear for their lives."
Had the officers taken any other action, such as trying to subdue Busch, "he would have killed them with the hammer," she said.
The police were responding to a call from neighbors on the evening of Aug. 30, 1999 that Busch might pose a danger to others on the block. He was in his basement apartment when the officers arrived for the second time that evening.
In opening statements that drew frequent objections from Box, Beldock faulted the senior officer at the scene, Sgt. Terrence O’Brien, for "not thinking straight" and "acting forcefully," rather than following protocols for dealing with an emotionally disturbed person.
"The police showed up and blew the situation apart," said Beldock. "There are procedures to follow … They have to stop taking any confrontational actions and calm things down."
Beldock conceded that Busch acted belligerently, smashing his door with the hammer and telling cops he would resist arrest. But Beldock suggested that behavior proved Busch was in a disturbed state and therefore the cops should have waited for the specially trained and equipped Emergency Service Unit.
Instead, according to both sides, O’Brien and Officer Daniel Gravitch descended the stairs from street level to Busch’s apartment to try to coax him outside. Gravitch sprayed Busch with pepper spray, causing him to bolt from the apartment and run up to the street. Seconds later, the officers opened fire, striking Busch 12 times.
The incident, which came at a time of heightened concern over police tactics after the slaying of unarmed African immigrant Amadou Diallo, was a rare flashpoint between the administration of Rudolph Giuliani and an Orthodox community in Borough Park that heavily supported his campaigns.
Both the former mayor and Howard Safir, the police commissioner at the time, stood by the cops, although witnesses said Busch seemed to pose no threat to the officers at the time they opened fire.
Dr. Charles Wetli, the Suffolk County coroner who examined Busch’s body at the request of New York City, said in pretrial proceedings that Busch was standing still at the time he was shot.
The officers were cleared of wrongdoing by both a grand jury and an internal police investigation. Federal investigators who reviewed the incident declined to bring charges, but they expressed concern that the officers may have colluded on details of the incident.
Busch relatives and others who have reviewed the Internal Affairs Bureau investigation insist the probe was perfunctory.
"IAB’s entire investigation hinged on three superficial questions," Borough Park Assemblyman Dov Hikind said this week. "One of the officers was never questioned at all."
In her opening comments, Box repeatedly used the phrase "menacing children with a hammer" to describe the behavior of Busch prior to the arrival of the police.
"There was no time for ESU to arrive," she said, insisting that the cops were concerned about the welfare of Percy Freeman, a guest in Busch’s apartment, and tried to get him out. "That’s what they’re trained to do."
Among those testifying Tuesday were two members of the Borough Park civilian patrol, David Spira and Izak Landau, who arrived at Busch’s apartment before police. Spira said he found Busch wearing only a shawl while "dancing and singing," surrounded by neighborhood children.
"He said he was hallucinating and meditating," said Spira. "He needed EMS more than police."
Spira and Landau said they convinced Busch to put on some clothes before the arrival of police who, Spira testified, said they did not want to call an ambulance because one of the officers would have to accompany Busch to the hospital.
At the time Busch did not have the hammer, which he picked up by the time police returned some 45 minutes later after a second call. Busch had also donned his tefillin.
In the front row of the courtroom, Busch’s mother, Doris Boskey, sat with other family members while one of her sons, Glenn, an attorney, sat with Beldock and his team. The five officers named in the suit sat with their lawyers.
The trial, in which the plaintiffs seek unspecified compensatory and punitive damages, could take between two and four weeks to go to the jury.