The Baltimore police officer who was caught on video berating and pushing a 14-year-old skateboarder at the Inner Harbor three years ago has been cleared of the most serious administrative charges, a police union leader said Tuesday.
A three-member police panel called a trial board held a hearing last week and found Officer Salvatore Rivieri guilty of failing to issue the youth a citizen contact receipt and file a report but not guilty on charges of using excessive and unnecessary force and uttering a discourtesy.
The decision is a blow to the Police Department and overturns an investigation led by internal affairs detectives who concluded that Rivieri had exceeded his authority in the incident. Administrative charges that could have led to the officer's termination were filed as a result of that investigation.
Robert Cherry, the president of the city's police union, said the panel recommended a suspension of several days for failing to file the proper paperwork. But Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III has the final say, and a department source said he could review the video of the disciplinary hearing and possibly decide to fire the officer anyway. In most cases, the police commissioner accepts the trial board's rulings, but the commissioner does have the authority to exceed the board's recommendations. The video, which was posted online by one of the skateboarder's friends, became an Internet sensation in part because of Rivieri's rant on the ever-contentious topic of whether teens pay enough deference to authority. Rivieri became enraged when Eric Bush, listening to an iPod, appeared to ignore him and later repeatedly referred to the officer as "dude" and "man."
At one point, Rivieri told Bush: "Don't get defensive with me, son, or you'll spend some time in juvenile. You aren't allowed to ride your skateboards down here, nowhere."
Then, Rivieri went on his now-famous rant:
"Obviously your parents don't put a foot in your butt quite enough because you don't understand the meaning of respect," the officer screamed at Bush. "First of all, you better learn how to speak. 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."
Baltimore police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said personnel rules prohibit him from commenting on the case. Rivieri, a 19-year veteran, was initially suspended and then moved from the harbor beat to patrol in the Southeastern District.
Cherry called the ruling just and chastised the department for not backing Rivieri in the face of nationwide criticism and debate generated by the video viewed by hundreds of thousands of people on YouTube.
"I wish the department had a little bit more courage when they're out there doing their job," Cherry said Tuesday. "Despite what people may have thought, despite what people saw on that short video, Officer Rivieri was doing his job."
The officer's lawyer, Michael Davey, confirmed the trial board's decision but refused to comment further, noting that "the case is not concluded until the commissioner signs the final order." He said that Bealefeld does have the right to fire his client.
But William P. Blackford, the attorney for the now 17-year-old skateboarder, said the department has yet to take the simple step to say it's sorry.
"I never thought Officer Rivieri was an evil man," the lawyer said. "He overreacted. They should just apologize." He said that dragging the case out over three years only shows the public that police have unique rights and "re-enforces the insidious perception that the police play by different rules."
Blackford filed a civil lawsuit against the Baltimore Police Department, but a Circuit Court judge dismissed it because the family missed by 59 days a deadline for notifying the city of its intent to sue. Blackford said Bush's mother waited so long to hire a lawyer because she was expecting an apology from Rivieri, which never came.
The video of the confrontation in the summer of 2007 quickly went viral after a friend of Bush's posted the video on YouTube. Within days, 400,000 people had watched and weighed in with opinions including that Bush deserved to be lectured and disciplined and that the cop should be fired.
Rivieri warned Bush and his friends to stop skateboarding at the harbor and then drove away, only to see them resume skateboarding a few moments later. He returned and sternly warned them again to stop, then got increasingly upset when Bush appeared to ignore his commands.
Rivieri said in civil court filings that when he tried to grab Bush's board, the youth held the board "in a threatening manner," pulled it to his chest and resisted. The officer grabbed the board and pulled Bush to the ground, supporting the boy's weight to cushion the fall, he said in the court papers filed in connection with the now-dismissed civil suit.
Rivieri said in a report in the court file that Bush "immediately lunged forward to stand up" and that Bush pushed him "back down to a seated position." In his civil suit, Bush said Rivieri "violently grabbed him by the throat and body," threw him to the ground and "struck him when he tried to get off the ground."
In the video, it does not appear that Rivieri struck Bush, but neither does it appear that the teen "lunged" toward the officer. The commissioner's review could take several days or weeks.