Lessons from 'Cop vs. Skater'

The Baltimore Sun

Skateboarding is a crime.

It is illegal when committed in conscious violation of posted signs that unambiguously restrict the activity in a given space. Skaters deface tax-subsidized structures: Benches and handrails are scraped and dented; curbs and granite edgings are eroded; pedestrian safety is compromised. Whether with spray paint, skateboard or pick-ax and chisel, vandalism is effacement of public or private property.

I know this because I am a skater - and therefore, at times, a vandal.

That's why I watched with great interest the YouTube footage of Baltimore police Officer Salvatore Rivieri.

That footage carries an eerie echo of the first sensational videotaped incident of police excess, more than 15 years ago, when Los Angeles police officers beat Rodney King.

Of course, Officer Rivieri was not going to seriously harm the boy caught skating at Baltimore's Inner Harbor. But the image of an officer grabbing a teen around the neck raises many questions. People jaywalk or cycle through restricted plazas every day. So what motivated Officer Rivieri to attack this particular youth? Was it the way the boy looked? Maybe. Was it how he spoke? Definitely.

Officer Rivieri was doing his job. Our young vandal had broken a law. But nothing justified the aggressiveness of the officer's response, and his failure to report the incident implies that he knew this.

A skater since age 12, I've seen untold episodes of police harassment. It unfolds in a manner so reliably predictable that it boils down to a deceptively simple moral calculus. If you violate a law, an officer will enforce it. But if by enforcing it that officer violates ethical codes of conduct, the twin violations cancel each other out - unless, of course, the respective transgressions won't balance our scales of justice.

In this particular episode, Officer Rivieri's transgression is worse. After all, considering the litany of possible teen offenses - drinking, drugs, drag racing, gang-banging - illegal skateboarding has to rank low on the list of offenses. And the officer supposedly brings substantial experience and professional training designed to defuse such an incident before it ignites. If he lacks this training, that reflects our collective failure as a community.

If Officer Rivieri's professional history betrays a pattern of this behavior, he should be dismissed. If not, we should examine the isolated event to learn as much as possible.

We can start by listening. Officer Rivieri publicly stated, "These kids, they've got nothing better to do." He's right, and his comment cuts to the heart of our failure.

Here's a proposal with a bit of poetic justice: Officer Rivieri should spearhead preliminary-phase planning for a municipal skate park feasibility study. The kids would help. Teens with "nothing better to do" would acquire project-planning skills, while Officer Rivieri would reacquaint himself with the ethical sensibilities that undoubtedly inspired nearly two decades of public service.

Skateboarding is a crime, but it doesn't need to be. In this instance, it could even be the inspiration for positive change - in the life of a police officer and in new opportunities for Baltimore-area youths with "nothing better to do."

Pete Cobus is a journalist and skateboarder in Washington. His e-mail is pac46@georgetown.edu.

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