Baltimore police said Tuesday they are investigating whether officers violated departmental policy last fall during a traffic stop of mayoral candidate Thiru Vignarajah.
The investigation will include whether a sergeant acted appropriately in turning off a body-worn camera during the stop, Baltimore police spokesman Matt Jablow said.
“We have referred this case to the Public Integrity Bureau to investigate whether there was any policy violation related to the stop,” Jablow said. “It is too early for BPD to make a determination without a complete investigation of the officer’s conduct.”
The Sept. 26 traffic stop started with a patrol officer pulling Vignarajah over at night in East Baltimore. The officer found a problem with Vignarajah’s vehicle registration and the sergeant and another officer also responded to the scene.
At a news conference Tuesday, Vignarajah said the sergeant offered to turn off the camera.
“I appreciated the courtesy and I accepted,” he said.
The video of Vignarajah asking the sergeant to turn off his body camera was first reported by independent journalist Justine Barron.
In a video from the sergeant’s camera posted by Barron, Vignarajah asks the sergeant who approaches his car whether his body camera is on. He responds that it is “absolutely on." Vignarajah then tells the sergeant that he respects “you guys” very much and appreciates the risks they take.
“OK,” the sergeant said, “do you want my body camera to remain on, sir?”
Vignarajah said “if you want to take it off" and the sergeant shortly thereafter responds, “it’s really up to you.” The camera remains on for more than a minute longer, as the sergeant talks to the other officers about the stop. He then returns to the car window to ask Vignarajah more questions. At that point, Vignarajah asks for the body camera to be turned off — a request the sergeant clarifies and records before complying.
Asked if it was appropriate for the sergeant to do so, Vignarajah told reporters that “built into the guidelines is some common-sense judgement and discretion that officers are permitted to use in the field.”
Baltimore police policy generally requires body-worn cameras — referred to by the acronym BWC — to be in use during traffic stops, with some exceptions.
“When victims, witnesses or other individuals wish to make a statement or share information during a voluntary interaction with police, but refuse to do so while being recorded, members may Deactivate the BWC in order to obtain the statement or information,” the department’s policy states. “If the encounter begins when the BWC is not actively recording, the member may, but is not required to, temporarily Activate the BWC for the sole purpose of documenting the person’s request they not be recorded.”
Vignarajah dismissed coverage of the traffic stop as “the politics of distraction."
Police cited Vignarajah on Sept. 26 for driving his car while its registration was suspended. The Democrat said he regrets unknowingly driving on suspended tags and that he has resolved the problem.
The encounter was nearly an hour long, as shown in video from the body camera of the officer who pulled Vignarajah over. The officer stopped Vignarajah around 1 a.m. in the 2400 block of Greenmount Avenue, according to footage obtained by The Baltimore Sun through a Maryland Public Information Act request.
It shows the officer telling the former Maryland deputy attorney general that he saw him driving without his headlights on; Vignarajah contests that. After taking Vignarajah’s license and registration, the officer tells him the registration was suspended due to an outstanding order from May to have the car repaired.
Vignarajah questioned the officer.
“We are 600 patrol officers down and that’s what you’re doing in Greenmount?” said Vignarajah, referencing a shortage of police officers in Baltimore.
The officer said he’s giving Vignarajah a warning about the headlights, but is removing his license plates because of the registration issue and tells him to call a tow truck.
The officer’s camera shows he later considers following Vignarajah home, but ultimately lets him leave on his own.
At the end of the stop, Vignarajah apologized to the officer for being “snippy” and told him to stay safe.
Asked Friday about the incident, Vignarajah said it stemmed from a repair order for a light on his car. He said he’d replaced the light, but forgot to send in paperwork showing the repair had been made.
“This was a modest oversight, corrected soon thereafter,” he said.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported an officer followed Vignarajah home. The video shows the officer considered following him home, but let him drive away.
Baltimore Sun reporter Talia Richman contributed to this article.