Judge upholds firing of officer in harbor skateboard incident

Rivieri berated, pushed teen in confrontation later posted on YouTube

February 28, 2011|By Peter Hermann, The Baltimore Sun

A Circuit Court judge upheld Monday the Baltimore police commissioner's firing of a city officer who was caught on video berating and pushing a 14-year-old skateboarder at the Inner Harbor three years ago and failed to document it in a report.

The ruling by Judge Sylvester B. Cox sets the stage for an appeal, which lawyers said is likely, promising continued debate over Salvatore Rivieri's actions and his vitriolic lecture on parenting and youthful indifference that was watched by hundreds of thousands of people on YouTube.

"The court is not here to second-guess the police commissioner," Cox ruled after hearing arguments in a courtroom filled with Rivieri's family and former colleagues on the force. "The commissioner acted well within his discretion. This court is not going to disrupt his position."

Rivieri confronted Eric Bush after telling him and his friends several times to stop skateboarding at the harbor. The teenager repeatedly called Rivieri "dude" and "man," enraging the officer, who felt the boy was being disrespectful.

At one point, Rivieri said, Bush raised the skateboard, and the officer grabbed it and put the youth in a headlock before setting him down on the ground. When Bush tried to get up, Rivieri pushed him back down.

But it was Rivieri's long lecture that captured the attention of Internet users.

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

He added: "I'm not 'man.' I'm not 'dude.' I am Officer Rivieri, and the sooner you learn that the longer you're going to live in this world. You go around doing this kind of stuff, somebody's going to kill you."

The video did not surface on YouTube until months after the incident, and Bush's mother sued the city after public outrage helped promote the recording. A judge dismissed the lawsuit because the family did not file it within the 180-day deadline.

Rivieri was suspended after the video became public, then reinstated and reassigned to patrol in the Southeast District. A year later, he was brought up on internal charges, rejected a plea offer to serve a 90-day suspension and took his chances at a disciplinary hearing known as a trial board.

The three-member panel, chaired by the homicide commander, found the 19-year veteran not guilty of the most serious administrative charges of using excessive force and language, but found him guilty of failing to write a report and to fill out a citizen-contact form. The panel recommended he be suspended for six days and lose six days of leave.

But Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III rejected the recommendation and fired Rivieri. He has the authority to escalate punishment as long as he stays within the parameters of a matrix; in this case, failing to write a report offers him maximum discretion — from no punishment up to and including termination.

Rivieri's attorney, Michael Marshall, argued that Bealefeld's decision, while legal, was so unfair that it should be considered "arbitrary and capricious" and be vacated.

Marshall called the report infractions "minor" and "innocuous," and said they did not merit firing. He accused the commissioner of succumbing to public pressure and basing his decision on what he saw on the video, not his client's failure to write a report.

The attorney cited Bealefeld's meeting last year with Rivieri, just before firing him, in which the commissioner told him he had brought discredit on the Police Department and the city. He said Bealefeld repeatedly cited the video, when "the only things on the video relate to charges my client was found not guilty of."

"I think it was a knee-jerk reaction on the part of the commissioner," Marshall told the judge. "It was based on a public relations issue, not based on the law. The decision has to be based on what he was found guilty of, not what the commissioner thinks he should have been found guilty of. … He did not bring public disgrace on the department by not writing a minor report."

But Mark Grimes, the Police Department's legal affairs chief, argued that Bealefeld has wide discretion in such cases and is allowed to consider the totality of the case before him.

Grimes called the video an "international incident" that cast a pall on the city and police, and said Rivieri's decision to not write a report or officially document the encounter was not minor but "tantamount to a cover-up."

The city attorney noted that Rivieri "felt the need to physically restrain a minor. He felt the need to physically push a minor and confiscated his belongings." How could the officer, Grimes asked, "feel no need to report this?"

peter.hermann@baltsun.com

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