Gary Busch wore overcoats in summer. He played Orthodox Jewish music at full blast. And he seemed to worship his hammer. A neighbor recalls seeing Busch hold the claw hammer aloft for several minutes on Sunday, meditating on it in the sunlight.
No one disputes Busch's menacing strangeness.
But whether Busch posed enough of a threat to warrant the hail of police gunfire that killed him Monday night now is the question at the center of accusations that New York City police used excessive force. The controversy follows other recent allegations that the New York police officers under Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani are too quick to shoot and too quick to use force.
The U.S. Justice Department already is investigating the New York Police Department because of a brutal sexual assault by officers on a man in custody in 1997 and the killing of an unarmed man who was shot 41 times by officers earlier this year.
This latest case, to be presented to a Brooklyn grand jury next week, now has raised doubts about Giuliani's leadership among one of his core constituencies: Orthodox Jews. Hundreds of people in the Borough Park section of Brooklyn protested in the streets Monday night in anger and concern over the Busch killing. Many of them believed that officers could have used something other than deadly force to subdue the mentally disturbed man.
In his all-but-announced Senate race against first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, Giuliani has used falling crime statistics as evidence of the law and order he has brought back to New York. But Busch's death is the latest in a series of cases that have prompted some New Yorkers to fear that Giuliani has fostered a shoot-first mentality that has officers acting as judge and jury.
That perception is "what they are very nervous about," State Assemblyman Dov Hikind (D) said of Giuliani's administration. Hikind's district includes Borough Park, which has the highest concentration of Orthodox Jews in the nation. "This is an area that is 90 percent Democratic, and we supported him."
But because of the shooting and Giuliani's quick defense of police in the case, "There's a lot of very bad feeling out there toward the mayor," Hikind said.
Other Jewish leaders, however, have rallied to Giuliani's side, agreeing with him that police acted properly in the face of a dire threat from Busch's hammer.
"This isn't the movies," Police Commissioner Howard Safir told reporters. "You don't shoot hammers out of hands. You don't shoot people in the leg. If you use a weapon in exerting deadly physical force, then we shoot to stop the individual who is exerting that deadly physical force against you."
The incident unfolded Monday night in a community where gunplay is unknown and ethnic-religious insularity is such that Yiddish is as prevalent as English.
Police had been called several times over a few months to the apartment building where Busch lived in a basement unit. On Monday, a call to 911 said Busch, 31, was threatening children with his hammer, police say. Police had been to his apartment only an hour earlier, and knew what kind of person they were dealing with. They would later learn that Busch had been smoking marijuana for hours, and that he was a suspect in a Sunday hammer attack on a man's face.
When they approached him Monday evening, he reportedly wore a prayer shawl and the small scripture-filled leather boxes that traditionally are strapped to an arm and the forehead for Orthodox prayer. And he had the hammer.
Police ordered him to drop the tool. Busch did not. An officer tried to subdue him with a pepper spray, but that did not work, police say. In the course of the confrontation, Busch repeatedly struck an officer who had fallen to the ground, police said. With Busch still refusing to drop the hammer, the officer on the ground and three others opened fire on him. He was hit a dozen times.
Because police knew that Busch was mentally disturbed, some of Busch's neighbors think police should have been better prepared to deal with him.
"There should have been other methods," said a 24-year-old kosher food salesman who, like others in the neighborhood today, did not wish to be identified. "They've got night sticks. They've got pepper spray. Why did it have to come to bullets?"
Another person, a 20-year-old woman who lives in the building next to Busch's and identified herself only as Rachel, said, "I think they should have called people who were trained to deal with this situation."
But Pearl Friedman, 25, who was born and raised in Borough Park, urged caution in judging police.
"I think they were correct," she said, but added that everyone should remain calm and await the outcome of an investigation.
Busch reportedly once had been a medical student with a shaky mental state. The Associated Press reported that Busch had been committed to a mental institution two years ago and that he had recently joined an extremist cult.
The manner of his death called to mind the shooting earlier this year of Amadou Diallo. Unlike Busch, Diallo was unarmed when officers in February fired 41 shots at him, wounding him 19 times. Police, who confronted him in the dark, thought he had a gun.
"In the Diallo case, the individual was totally innocent," Hikind said. "In this case, we're dealing with someone emotionally disturbed, who had a hammer in his hand. But in another sense, you could say [Busch's killing] is worse because they knew exactly what they were confronting."
CAPTION: Orthodox Jewish boys from the Borough Park neighborhood, where Busch was killed, listen to New York Assemblyman Dov Hikind (D) discuss the shooting.
CAPTION: Gary Busch, 31, shown in an undated photo, was shot to death Monday by police responding to a neighbor's 911 report that he was threatening children with his hammer.