By WILLIAM GLABERSON, The New York Times
A police sergeant ordered an officer to spray Mace at Gidone Busch
before he had hit any officers with his hammer, according to the
officer's videotaped testimony. The tape was played for jurors
yesterday at the civil trial focusing on the fatal police shooting of
Mr. Busch in 1999.
"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.
"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
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."