What if Thiru Vagnarajah had been a young black man in West Baltimore who was stopped by Baltimore police for driving with his lights allegedly turned off?
What if that young black man turned testy with the police officer and questioned his authority and claims about the lights, as the lawyer and mayoral candidate did when he was stopped at 1 a.m. in the 2400 block of Greenmount Avenue in East Baltimore on Sept. 26?
Police let the passenger in the car, a woman, leave the vehicle and the scene. Would that courtesy have been given to the young black man?
And would the young black man have been offered a police escort home and then ultimately allowed to drive himself, rather than have his tags taken away and the car towed as the law requires?
We don’t really know how the officers would have reacted. What we do know is that African Americans are more likely to be stopped for traffic violations — on average 20% more likely, according to a study released last year by Stanford University of nearly 100 million traffic stops around the country.
We also hear many more stories about black citizens dying after a traffic stop for a minor violation blows up into something more. In case anybody needs a couple of reminders: Philando Castile, a 32-year-old school cafeteria worker was shot by police in Minnesota while sitting in a car in 2016 — all while his girlfriend recorded it from the passenger seat and her 4-year-old daughter sat in the back. And in 2015, Sandra Bland was stopped in Texas for failing to signal when turning lanes. That stop erupted into a violent exchange where the officer pulled out a stun gun. She was arrested and died while incarcerated.
There’s no way of knowing what cop may escalate a routine traffic stop into a deadly one. That is why black mothers and fathers teach their sons not to act the way Mr. Vignarajah did with the officers. Don’t get snippy. Don’t ask too many questions. Don’t challenge the police on the scene. It’s better to file a complaint or lawsuit later if someone feels their rights were truly violated.
Definitely don’t follow the example of Mr. Vignarajah and question the validity of the officer’s claims that his registration was suspended for an outstanding order on a car repair. He also questioned why the officer was even on Greenmount Avenue, given the police force is short 600 patrol officers — the audacity of the officer wasting time on traffic stops in that part of town.
Caryn York, chief executive officer of the group Jobs Opportunity Task Force, wouldn’t advise her clients to react to the police in this way and said they would “never be given the luxury of driving home.” It’s part of the reason why the organization holds “brake light clinics,” to teach people how to change a brake light. “Use your skills to help your friends, family, and community prevent unnecessary police stops, expensive tickets and fines, and possible court appearances,” a flyer promoting a clinic last June reads. Ms. York also said you don’t know when a traffic stop can escalate into something more.
Even though he is not black, Mr. Vignarajah doesn’t seem a stranger to what could go wrong during a traffic stop given some of his actions. He placed his hands visibly on the steering wheel and kept them in place. He told the officer he was reaching into the glove compartment to get his registration — tips African American men are often given so that a stop with police doesn’t turn confrontational.
But he also threw around his clout, without saying who he was, casually mentioning a case he had prosecuted as to why he was in the neighborhood. He asked for the police body camera to be turned off for a portion of the stop. This from the man who is promoting the use of spy planes to help stop crime in the city. Will certain people be allowed to ask that these planes aren’t used in their neighborhoods or to be detoured to other areas when convenient?
According to the state police website, if your vehicle’s registration is suspended, you must immediately return the license plates to an MVA branch office. If you do not return the license plates within 10 days after the date on which the suspension notice was mailed, a tag pick up order will be issued. The license plates then will be subject to immediate confiscation by a police officer.
The officer who stopped Mr. Vignarajah was following those rules before a sergeant intervened. To be fair, the sergeant, whose actions, along with the other officers, are under investigation by the city, called the state police, who told him it was the officer’s discretion how to handle it.
We just wonder who else would have been given the same leeway.
Most African Americans wouldn’t take the chance of trying to find out.
Andrea K. McDaniels is The Sun’s deputy editorial page editor. Her column runs every other Friday. Please send her ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org.