Residents support fired police officer

Salvatore Rivieri was tough but effective, they say

August 26, 2010|By Peter Hermann, The Baltimore Sun

The owner of a deli at the Inner Harbor's Light Street Pavilion wishes there were "many more Officer Rivieris to deal with our problems." A recreational boater from Fallston credits the officer with saving her daughter's dog.

And a resident of a waterfront condo praises the officer for shooing away youngsters who damaged the monument at the Columbus Piazza and called the officer's firing Wednesday "a triumph for the skateboarders."

They're talking about Salvatore Rivieri, the 19-year police veteran who lost his job after getting caught on video berating and pushing a 14-year-old boy he was trying to stop from skateboarding at the harbor three years ago.

"Obviously your parents don't put a foot in your butt quite enough because you don't understand the meaning of respect," Rivieri yelled during a long, incendiary rant at Eric Bush, who appeared indifferent and rude when he repeatedly called the officer "dude."

Now, after the city's police commissioner abruptly fired him this week, old debates with familiar themes are resurfacing — did Rivieri lose control and deserve to lose his job? Or was he merely giving Bush a lesson the youth's parents should have given him at home?

At the time of the incident, police officials suspended Rivieri and publicly indicated their displeasure with his actions, which upset the fragile relationship the department had with the community.

Opinions on Rivieri's actions — hashed out in the media and online two years ago when the video first appeared YouTube — have been almost uniformly split, with observers either hailing the officer as a hero who deserves an award for demanding respect from a stubborn teen or condemning him as a bully with a badge who deserved to be fired for losing control.

Eric's father, Roy Bush, called WBAL's Clarence Mitchell IV's radio show Thursday to condemn the officer. "Picture your young teenager being thrown in a headlock by this wannabe Marine drill person who is supposed to be helping someone," the elder Bush said.

The father rejected any notion that his son disrespected authority by referring to Rivieri as a "dude" and said his son was "so intimidated that he couldn't talk," adding, "He's only a child. … Thank God for this police commissioner who made a wise decision."

But behind the passionate debate, dozens of residents from Greektown to the Inner Harbor sent letters and organized petition drives in an attempt to save Rivieri's job. After seeing news reports last month that an internal panel had cleared Rivieri of the most serious charges he faced — using excessive force and using discourtesies — they thought they had succeeded. The panel of three officers of varying ranks had found Rivieri guilty only of failing to write a report and recommended a five-day suspension.

But Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III disagreed with the panel, as he is free to do, and fired the officer instead. Now those who quietly supported the officer are speaking out for the first time.

Upset over the firing, a shocked Rosalind Ellis got on the phone Thursday morning and called Bealefeld's office to voice her opinion. She has lived in a condo on President Street for 20 years and has complained that youths on skateboards have damaged the Christopher Columbus Monument and threatened her when she protested.

"I cannot understand that with all the stuff that's going on in the city that the police commissioner would get involved with skateboarders," Ellis said. "I'm very upset because I have personal dealings with these skateboarders, and they are frightening and arrogant."

Fallston's Kim Cowie visits Baltimore often with her family aboard their boat Manatee and happened to be at the harbor the same weekend Eric Bush had his run-in with Rivieri. She and her then-14-year-old daughter Emily were walking her dog, Jack, when he collapsed from the heat and refused to budge.

"Officer Rivieri came over, got water out of his cooler and asked if she needed help," Cowie said. Apparently not seeing her mother, who was trailing 20 feet behind, "he offered to help get the dog to the vet. He was very concerned there was a child alone with a sick dog."

Cowie said she has watched Rivieri on the YouTube video and concluded, "Perhaps those children were not well-supervised. … It is very sad that police officers and teachers end up in positions of parenting, and they end up monitoring teenagers who shouldn't be on the loose."

New York Deli owner Frank Zamanin said he spoke with Rivieri many times as the officer kept unruly teens out of the pavilions. He too watched the video and has no problem with the officer's actions.

"They didn't respect the police officer," he said. "I wouldn't call a police officer 'dude.' I don't believe my children would call a police officer 'dude.' It's all up to the parents. I wish there were many Officer Rivieris all over the city."

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