The Chief
November 21, 2003

Jury Backs Officers In Busch Shooting

Verdict for City

By Mark Daly

A federal jury in Brooklyn Nov. 17 found that five police officers were justified in the 1999 fatal shooting of a mentally ill Borough Park resident.

The verdict, which came after less than a day of deliberation, brought an end to a civil lawsuit brought by the parents of Gidone Busch, a Hasidic Jew who was shot and killed outside his apartment in a confrontation with police.

Discounted testimony

The officers, including a unit commander, Lieut. Terrence O’Brien, maintained they shot in self-defense after an agitated Mr. Busch lunged at one of them with a hammer. During the month-long trial, the family’s attorney, Myron Beldock, called seven residents of the largely Orthodox Jewish neighborhood who testified that they witnessed all or part of the confrontation and disputed the account given by the officers.

In interviews following the verdict’s announcement, several jurors told reporters that they relied heavily on the testimony of the lone resident who supported the police account, even though that witness gave an incorrect count of the officers on the scene and contradicted other parts of the city’s case.

Leticia Santiago, a Law Department attorney who represented the officers, said the city was pleased by the verdict. She said the jury’s decision “reflects the judgment that although the death of Gideon Busch was sad and unfortunate, the police officers involved were not at fault and acted properly.

Jury Brave or Tilted?

“A police officer’s job is a difficult one that sometimes sadly requires the use of deadly force,” said Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association President Patrick J. Lynch. “We are thankful that the jury had the courage to weigh the facts and make the proper decision.”

Mr. Beldock complained that the jury included too many people with connections to law-enforcement. The attorney said the foreman, Anthony Leoncavallo, said in his initial questioning that he was a Court Officer in a housing court.

The August 30, 1999 shooting, and the testimony that emerged about it, raised questions about police practices governing the use of deadly force against the mentally ill, as well as the Police Department’s willingness to conduct a thorough investigation.

Mental health experts questioned the wisdom of sending an armed patrol unit to respond to reports that Mr. Busch was yelling and causing a disturbance in the neighborhood. Police on the scene called for Emergency Services Unit officers. But they didn’t arrive soon enough.

One eyewitness, Richard Eisenberg, testified that a police officer refused to interview him about the shooting after he voiced criticism of the police response.

Mr. Eisenberg said the officer, Daniel Gravitch, who was involved in the shooting, approached him afterward and asked what he’d seen. But the officer walked away when Mr. Eisenberg remarked that the cops and Mr. Busch had “this sort-of face-off and then you just shot him.”

Telltale Memo Book

A page from Mr. Gravitch’s memo book, introduced at the trial, showed Mr. Eisenberg’s name with what appeared to be a line running through it.

A state grand jury declined to indict the officers for the shooting, but the Federal prosecutor who reviewed the incident concluded in 2001 that the officers might have collaborated to develop an account of the shooting that portrayed Mr. Busch as a dangerous and aggressive foe.

According to the New York Times, the NYPD probed the possibility of collusion by calling in the officers involved in the shooting and asking them if they’d worked together to come up with a story. All the officers said no.

The six officers named in the civil suit never faced department charges. Mr. Gravitch became a Sergeant as the case advanced in the courts, while Mr. O’Brien advanced from Sergeant to Lieutenant and another officer left to join the Yonkers police force.

With the trial over, “I don’t believe that we will re-open any of the files. That case was thoroughly investigated,” Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly said last week.

When asked specifically about Mr. Eisenberg’s report of Mr. Gravitch’s conduct, Mr. Kelly said, “That testimony was judged by the jury and the jury has spoken on that.”

More Training

An NYPD spokesman later said Mr. Kelly approved a boost in the training provided for such incidents shortly after he became Commissioner in January 2002.

According to the department, new recruits in the Police Academy now receive a full day of training in isolating and subduing emotionally disturbed persons. Veteran cops got a refresher lesson in the subject in one of the two in-service training days officers have each year. ESU cops, who specialize in unusual incidents, take a more extensive course.

Patrol officers are trained to use pepper spray and other “non-lethal” means to subdue a disturbed person, the spokesman said. Field sergeants and lieutenants have access to other devices, such as tasers, but they are not in every supervisor’s vehicle, he added.

Pepper Spray Used

Sergeant Gravitch testified in the trial that he used pepper spray on Mr. Busch as the enraged man, wielding a hammer, backed away from officers by climbing the stairs to his apartment. Lieutenant O’Brien said he ordered the spraying after Mr. Busch had struck him in the arm with the hammer. The family’s lawsuit claimed the officers had sprayed Mr. Busch before he struck anyone, which only added to his confusion.

By the end of the 10-minute confrontation, four officers had shot Mr. Busch a total of 12 times, including once in the back.

During the trial, city attorneys who represented the officers asked questions that appeared to be aimed at getting jurors to consider possibility that witnesses in the close-knit Hasidic community had shaded their testimony of changed their accounts out of sympathy for Mr. Busch’s parents.

Mr. Busch’s mother, Doris Boskey, said the family’s fight was not over. “It’s been a cover-up from the minute the first shot was fired,” she said.