Officer Describes Order to Use Mace in Fatal Police Shooting
"Mace him! Mace him," the officer, Daniel Gravitch, quoted the sergeant, Terrence O'Brien, as saying shortly after arriving at the scene of a confrontation between two officers and Mr. Busch in the stairway to his apartment in Borough Park, Brooklyn. Neighbors had called the police to report a disturbed man who was wandering the streets nearly nude with a hammer.
In the taped testimony that jurors viewed yesterday in Federal District Court in Brooklyn, the officer, who has since been promoted to sergeant, said he followed the orders of Sergeant O'Brien, shooting a dose of pepper spray, similar to Mace, directly into Mr. Busch's eyes.
"It seemed to make him angrier," Sergeant Gravitch said. He said it was only then that Mr. Busch, 31, forced his way up the stairs and swung his hammer, hitting Sergeant O'Brien on his right side.
The testimony was important for the Busch family's lawsuit against the city because it suggested that under Sergeant O'Brien's command, the police might have inflamed a tense situation, violating procedures that call for isolating and containing emotionally disturbed people. Sergeants Gravitch and O'Brien are among the five officers named, along with the city, as defendants in the civil suit by Mr. Busch's family in the shooting on Aug. 30, 1999.
Sergeant Gravitch's testimony was also important to the family because of the possibility that it could open a rift in the city's defense. Myron Beldock, the family's lawyer, has suggested that some of the officers tailored their accounts of the events, contradicting Sergeant Gravitch's testimony by saying, for example, that Mr. Busch hit the officers first and only then was sprayed to subdue him.
If Mr. Busch attacked officers first, that could make it appear that Mr. Busch was out of control before the police used the pepper spray that the family says infuriated, disoriented and blinded him. Mr. Beldock called Sergeant Gravitch to the witness stand and is expected to call Sergeant O'Brien this week.
Sergeant Gravitch, in a suit and tie, sat in the well of the court while Mr. Beldock played on huge television sets an extensive portion of videotaped pretrial testimony he gave last year. Sergeant Gravitch was not one of the officers who fired at Mr. Busch, who was hit 12 times.
Mr. Beldock appeared to be using the tape to limit Sergeant Gravitch's chances to amend his earlier account. In the courtroom, he asked on a few occasions whether the sergeant had concluded that the shooting by the other officers was a "bad shooting." It was not, he replied, adding that he did not fire at Mr. Busch only because he did not have a clear shot.
But under questioning yesterday by a lawyer for the city, Alan Scheiner, Sergeant Gravitch gave a description far different in tone from the one Mr. Beldock chose to emphasize. When he first talked with Mr. Busch, Sergeant Gravitch said, Mr. Busch brushed off a request to drop his hammer, saying the police would have to kill him to get him to drop it.
Soon after, Sergeant Gravitch said, two officers grabbed a friend of Mr. Busch's who was living in his apartment and dragged him up the basement staircase to the sidewalk.
As some officers tried to handcuff the friend, Percy Freeman, Mr. Busch grew agitated, Sergeant Gravitch told the jurors. At the bottom of the staircase, Mr. Busch shouted, "Let my friend go," and began waving the hammer, he testified.
"All the factors," Sergeant Gravitch said, "led me to believe, he's dangerous with that hammer in his hand." He described Sergeant O'Brien going down the stairs toward Mr. Busch and Mr. Busch moving toward the sergeant. In that chaotic instant, Sergeant Gravitch said, he shouted to Sergeant O'Brien, asking if he should spray Mace at Mr. Busch. The answer was yes.
A moment later, he said, he and a clear-eyed Mr. Busch were face to face at the top of the stairs. Sergeant Gravitch said he had his nightstick out and had considered hitting Mr. Busch.
At the last minute, he said, he changed his mind and lost his footing and fell backward on the sidewalk. When he got up, he said, Mr. Busch and the other officers were facing off, and then the shots were fired.
But he told the jurors that he agreed with the other officer's assessment about the danger Mr. Busch posed. In that instant before he lost his balance, Sergeant Gravitch said: "I thought he was going to kill me with the hammer. I got scared."