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Vignarajah asked Baltimore police to turn off video during a late night encounter. Should they have complied?

Baltimore mayoral candidate Thiru Vignarajah was stopped by a Baltimore police officer on September 26, 2019 for suspended tags on his vehicle.

Video of Thiru Vignarajah interacting with police during a late night traffic stop sparked debate over whether the mayoral candidate and former prosecutor was given special treatment when a police sergeant agreed to turn off his body-worn camera at Vignarajah’s request.

Vignarajah was pulled over around 1 a.m. Sept. 26 by a Baltimore police officer for driving without his headlights in the 2400 block of Greenmount Avenue in East Baltimore, according to footage police released this week to The Baltimore Sun.

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The encounter at times got contentious. Eventually, Sgt. Olufemi Akinwande arrives and approaches the car as Vignarajah asks whether his body camera is on. It is “absolutely on," the sergeant replies. He then asked Vignarajah if he wanted the camera stopped, to which Vignarajah says “if you want to take it off.”

A minute passed and, as the sergeant asked questions, Vignarajah asks that the camera be turned off. The sergeant complied.

According to attorneys, law enforcement officers and the department’s policy manual, the decision whether to stop recording rests solely with officers involved in the stop, not the person being stopped. And the manual makes clear that officers must keep recording in nearly every situation.

"We are supposed to keep it on at all times unless we are speaking to a witness, sexual assault victim or if the camera being on places someone in danger,” Baltimore Police spokesman Donny Moses said Friday.

The Baltimore police manual outlines several scenarios in which it is appropriate for officers to turn off cameras if requested. But all of those exceptions involve protecting the identity of crime victims or witnesses, confidential informants or people who may want to offer information on a crime without implicating themselves.

“Once recording with a [body-worn camera] has been initiated, members shall not end the recording until ... the event or encounter has fully concluded,” the policy states. “When in doubt, members shall continue to record the interaction if it is reasonable to do so.”

The police department announced this week that it is conducting an internal investigation into the events surrounding the stop of Vignarajah.

David Shapiro, a Baltimore criminal justice attorney, said he believes Vignarajah was “given a break," but isn’t sure from the video that it happened “because of who he is.”

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Shapiro said cameras should never be turned off during or even immediately after an encounter.

“Once an officer is sent on assignment, whatever it might be, once that call starts, I think the body-worn camera should be activated and it should stay on once he finishes," Shapiro said on Friday. “I think each police commissioner should not have a gray area and instead [have] something that applies to everyone, wherever they came from. Whether it’s a mayoral candidate or just John Q. Public in the local neighborhood."

After stopping Vignarajah for the headlight violation, police found that the State Police had issued an order to remove the car’s license plates because he had not filed a proper repair form following an earlier traffic ticket.

In an interview Friday, Vignarajah said he thought the traffic stop had concluded when he asked for the camera to be shut down.

“This is what I thought was judgement and discretion of the officers in the field. I called AAA and was waiting for the tow and under the impression that it was over,” he said of the stop.

A tow truck didn’t come because Sgt. Akinwande and the other officers conferred and called the State Police to see if they had any discretion on whether to pull the license plates or to let Vignarajah continue driving home. The State Police response was not audible on the tape, but, after they hung up, officers let him drive away.

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Vignarajah said Friday that body-worn cameras are an “important part of police work.” He said he believes the use of cameras is a “common sense" judgement and that officers “have to use” discretion in the field.

The body camera footage does show Vignarajah’s contentious exchanges with the officers, even complaining that officers had no right to stop him even though they said his headlights weren’t on. He also questioned the State Police order to take his plates.

At one point, Vignarajah apologized for being “snippy.”

The officers noticed. After Sgt. Akinwande asks Officer Mark Smith if Vignarajah was “belligerent,” and Smith kind of demurs, Akinwande walks off. Then Sgt. Cameron Battle and Smith have an exchange.

“He was belligerent?” Battle says.

“He wasn’t belligerent, but he was trying to…” Smith starts.

“…borderline disrespectful, trying to bait you into a…” Battle interjects.

“Right,” Smith says.

“OK I got you,” Battle says. “I’m glad you were smarter than to get baited into something.”

Smith also said he didn’t know who Thiru was.

“It doesn’t matter who he is,” Akinwande replied.

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