Fickle public changes mind on Harbor cop

Demanded he be fired in 08, re-instated two years later

September 11, 2010|By Peter Hermann, The Baltimore Sun

Two years ago, it seemed that everyone was demanding that the city police commissioner fire Officer Salvatore Rivieri for berating and pushing a 14-year-old who repeatedly called him "dude" and ignored orders to stop skateboarding at the Inner Harbor.

Letters poured into City Hall and police headquarters from across the country after people watched Rivieri's abrasive lecture on YouTube. A man in Beverly, Mass., addressed his missive, "Hey Dude" and called city police "a joke" and told the commissioner, "You should be ashamed!!!"

A Montgomery County resident asked: "What's the next step, pulling his service weapon on someone double parked?"

But this year, after Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III stripped the officer of his job and pension, it seems that everyone is demanding that Rivieri get his gun and badge back.

Letters have poured into City Hall and police headquarters from across the country from people equally as outraged that the commissioner agreed with those who wrote the city in 2008. "You did a true injustice to the citizens of Baltimore," a man from Greektown wrote.

"By reprimanding the officer, you are sending the message that these teenagers can rule society and ignore the laws,' another person said. A man from Aberdeen penned his words on red, white and blue stationery: "Please reconsider your firing. Please, please."

And a former 52-year resident of Baltimore who now lives in New Freedom, Pa., told Bealefeld, "Usually I agree with your actions but I do not agree with this one. … Surely you must have some compassion for a man who served his city."

The bewildered brass working in the commissioner's office pondered the two files filled with contradictory notes labeled "Rivieri 2008" and "Rivieri 2010."

"A fickle public," concluded one commander.

The police are experiencing twin lesson. The first: You can never satisfy everybody. The second: Only angry people write letters.

That's how Bealefeld suddenly became the bad guy for ousting a cop whom he thought everyone wanted ousted. Constantly battered by critics who charge cover-up at every turn, the commissioner had not only fired a fellow officer but also overruled some of his own staff who had decided after a disciplinary hearing that Rivieri deserved only to be suspended.

Instead being praised for keeping his force above reproach and breaking through the famed "blue wall of silence," Bealefeld was vilified. Residents who once embraced his tenure wrote to say they were "very angry," and "very disappointed," as well as "outraged" and "heartbroken."

Bealefeld's commanders are now trying to mitigate the damage. A senior police source with knowledge of the disciplinary process said the decision wasn't as callous as it at first seemed — the commissioner tried to save the officer's job.

The source, who could not speak for the record because of confidential personnel rules, said Bealefeld offered Rivieri a 90-day suspension, spread out to avoid having to go a full three months without pay, and an agreement to attend anger management classes. The source said Rivieri refused.

"Commissioner Bealefeld tried to mediate the situation and resolve it to send a message that we aren't going to tolerate that sort of activity, but at the same time the officer could stay," the source said.

The officer's attorney did not respond to a request for comment.

Whether that new information blunts criticism or changes the minds of people who have signed petitions on behalf of Rivieri remains to be seen.

The outcry may have less to do with a shift in public opinion than with who is doing the talking. People angry with Rivieri's conduct in 2008 voiced their opinion, while the people satisfied with his behavior had no reason to get all worked up. Two years later, the folks who had been silent suddenly had reason to be outraged, while the previously outraged were suddenly content.

It appears that Bealefeld has been consistent in his feelings toward Rivieri, even if some of his top commanders have altered their views. Two years ago, the commissioner sent out form letters calling the officer's conduct "not acceptable and not consistent with the principles of the Baltimore Police Department. … He could have and should have handled the incident in a more professional manner."

Eric Bush, then 14, had refused Rivieri's orders to stop skateboarding at the harbor. Eric appeared indifferent and repeatedly called the officer "dude." An enraged Rivieri took the youth to ground while trying to get the skateboard, and then pushed Eric when he tried to get up.

"Obviously your parents don't put a foot in your butt quite enough because you don't understand the meaning of respect," Rivieri shouted during a long, angry soliloquy.

The lecture occurred in July 2007. The YouTube video was posted in February 2008. Rivieri was fired in August 2010. Part of the problem here is the painfully laborious disciplinary process that confounds even the people who set it up.

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