When I wrote that the Baltimore police officers who arrested 7-year-old Gerard Mungo Jr. last year overreacted, I got a lot of testy e-mails from people telling me how wrong I was.
You know who you are, and I'm sure Officer Salvatore Rivieri would like to know who you are, too. He really needs your support.
Thanks to the wonders of technology, Rivieri got his 15 minutes of fame, although probably not in the way he might have planned. Actually, it's three minutes and 39 seconds worth of fame, courtesy of that Internet creation known as YouTube. With some cell phones now being video cameras, almost anybody, at any time, anywhere, and virtually any incident might end up on YouTube.
Rivieri had no idea that someone with a cell phone camera recorded his encounter last summer with a 14-year-old skateboarder at the Inner Harbor. At least not until the very end of the video, when he's heard telling the person recording the incident "Is that camera on? I'd better not find out I'm on that camera."
But by then it was too late. In less than five minutes, Rivieri had already taken the action that led to his being suspended this week while the Baltimore Police Department's Internal Investigation Division determines what happened between the cop and the kid.
What happened, based on the YouTube video, is this:
Rivieri is seen telling a boy who appears to be about 14 or so that no skateboarding is allowed on the Inner Harbor promenade. The boy gives an answer that I found inaudible. But I could hear Rivieri as clear as a bell.
"Don't get defensive with me, son," Rivieri says. "You get defensive with me, you'll be spending some time in juvenile detention."
The boy says something else I couldn't understand. Rivieri answers.
"Don't give that attitude to me!" he shouts. "I'm not your father!"
The boy answers that he doesn't have a father, and that seems to enrage Rivieri even more.
"You give that attitude to me, I'll smack you upside your head!" shouts Rivieri, furious that the boy keeps calling him "dude." Within moments, Rivieri walks up to the boy, grabs him around the neck and wrests his skateboard from him. Rivieri throws the boy to the ground and appears to slap him one time across the face.
"I didn't do anything!" the boy protests.
"You disrespected me, this badge and my department!" Rivieri answers. "Obviously your parents didn't put a foot up your butt quite enough!"
Rivieri then gives the boy a stern lecture on the value of respecting his elders, especially when those elders are wearing badges.
The video hit YouTube this week. Sterling Clifford, a spokesman for the Baltimore Police Department, said police Commissioner Fred Bealefeld and members of the command staff watched it.
"Officer Rivieri was suspended while IID [the Internal Investigations Division] looks into it," Clifford said. "IID is sorting through all the details."
Clifford said some of those details include exactly when the incident occurred and whether the boy's mother has filed a complaint with IID.
"Obviously it was summertime," Clifford said of when the incident took place. Rivieri is wearing shorts. The boy and some other skateboarders are wearing T-shirts.
"As far as we know, nobody was arrested in that incident," Clifford said. That's got to be a disappointment to those folks who all but cheered when the Mungo boy was arrested as he sat on a dirt bike outside his East Baltimore home. They're probably ready to give Rivieri the Vic Mackey Excellence in Policing Award, too. (Vic Mackey is the brutal, corrupt cop who's the protagonist of the television show The Shield.) I get the feeling that there are more people who feel that way than many of us would like to admit.
There's no question that dirt bikes are illegal in Baltimore. But the way the police handled the boy's arrest sparked an apology from Mayor Sheila Dixon, and then-police Commissioner Leonard Hamm said the arrest was "inconsistent" with his policing strategy. And the boy's family hit the city with a $40 million lawsuit.
Now, to play devil's advocate (but only a little bit) for Rivieri, I have to admit that the principle he was defending is valid: respect for authority, especially police officers. If I were a cop, I wouldn't want some 14-year-old wiseacre calling me "dude" either. And if I caught him skateboarding on the Inner Harbor promenade where he's not supposed to be skateboarding, then I'd expect him to move along without editorializing about it.
Rivieri was on solid ground as long as he admonished the boy from a distance. He crossed the line when he went up to the youth, grabbed him around the neck and took the skateboard.
"That's what's at issue as far as the Police Department is concerned," Clifford said. "Did this officer go about enforcing the law in a way that is appropriate?"