Baltimore Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III overruled a disciplinary panel's recommendation Wednesday and fired a veteran officer who was caught on video berating and pushing a 14-year-old skateboarder at the Inner Harbor three years ago.
A trial board consisting of three officers of varying ranks heard evidence at a hearing last month and cleared Officer Salvatore Rivieri of the most serious administrative charges: using excessive and unnecessary force and uttering discourtesies.
The panel instead ruled that the 19-year veteran deserved a five-day suspension for failing to file a report. A department spokesman said Bealefeld disagreed and called Rivieri into his office Wednesday and told him he had been fired. The spokesman declined to explain the decision further, pointing to confidential personnel rules.
The chief's decision — while not unprecedented — drew immediate condemnation from the union representing the city's 3,000 police officers. The union leaders accused Bealefeld of bowing to public pressure in a case that attracted national attention and became a sensation on the Internet.
Hundreds of thousands of people on YouTube watched Rivieri confront Eric Bush as he tried to stop him and his friends from skateboarding on the waterfront promenade, sparking a debate over police tactics, parenting and apathetic teens. They were drawn to the officer's rage when the youth repeatedly called him "dude" and by the officer's incendiary rant, during which he screamed, "Obviously your parents don't put a foot in your butt quite enough because you don't understand the meaning of respect."
Robert F. Cherry, president of the city's Fraternal Order of Police lodge, likened Bealefeld's move to a "jury coming back with a verdict of acquittal and the prosecutor saying, 'Hell no, put him in the chair and electrocute him.' That's what he just did."
Police chiefs have the right to overturn trial board decisions. But Cherry said it was not fair for the commissioner to use that power to fire an officer for a routine violation of the rules. He said the union would appeal the decision in Baltimore Circuit Court.
"It's outrageous," Cherry said. "It's well beyond the punishment that should've been meted out. … This is the mechanism to police the police. The trial board is judge and jury. They have seen this video over and over again. Officer Rivieri took the stand and testified and was cross-examined by city lawyers."
The union president said that "whether you agree or disagree with Sal's tactics, he didn't curse, he didn't beat this kid. He gave the kid his skateboard back and called his mother." Cherry also noted that neither Bush nor his mother filed a complaint until seven months after the July 1, 2007, encounter, after the video appeared on YouTube.
"Obviously the trial board saw something different than the police commissioner," Cherry said. The panel that heard Rivieri's case was chaired by Maj. Terrence P. McLarney, the commander of the homicide unit, who has been on the force 33 years. He declined to comment.
Rivieri, through his union representative, also declined to comment. His attorney, Michael Davey, described the officer, who was within a year of retiring with full benefits, as devastated. The officer had been pulled off his patrol duties in Southeast Baltimore's Greektown neighborhood, where he had worked since the fall of 2009, and ordered to headquarters.
Davey said that punishment for failing to write a report typically consists of a letter of reprimand and up to 15 days' suspension or lost leave. Davey said Bealefeld has disregarded trial board recommendations and increased punishment more than any other commissioner he has dealt with while working as a union attorney for the past decade.
Police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi could not provide statistics to refute or support the statement, but he did say: "We are guided by the law and this administration has made it abundantly clear that we are going to hold people accountable. The people of Baltimore deserve that, and more. That's how we take internal policing. Very seriously."
William P. Blackford, the attorney who represented the Bush family — whose $1 million civil lawsuit was thrown out of Circuit Court because of a missed filing deadline — said "there is no joy to be taken for an officer who loses his job. He's given a lot. He made a mistake."
Neither Eric Bush nor his mother, Peggy Miller, could be reached for comment.
The video, which was posted on the Internet by one of Bush's friends, became an immediate sensation.
Bush, with earphones from his iPod securely in his ears, appeared at first to ignore Rivieri when he demanded the youths stop skateboarding on the harbor promenade. Rivieri grew more incensed when Bush kept calling him "dude" and "man."
At one point, Rivieri climbed over a small wall and, in court papers defending himself against the civil lawsuit, said that Bush was holding the skateboard in a "threatening manner." The video, however, doesn't show that part.
Rivieri is captured on tape going after the skateboard, which Bush clutched to his chest as he turned away from the officer. Rivieri then takes Bush to the ground and pushes him when the youth tries to stand up.
"Sit down, I'm not a dude," Rivieri said.
"Don't take my skateboard, I didn't do anything, dude," Bush answered.
But it was Rivieri's now-famous lecture that caught the attention of viewers. Many applauded the speech, while others condemned it as out of line for a police officer trained to de-escalate confrontations.
"Don't get defensive with me, son, or you'll spend some time in juvenile," Rivieri shouted at the teen. "You aren't allowed to ride your skateboards down here, nowhere."
Then, the officer 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."