Mayoral candidate Thiru Vignarajah addresses police traffic stop where he asked a Baltimore Police sergeant to turn off his body camera.
Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young and City Council President Brandon Scott questioned Thursday whether city police gave mayoral rival Thiru Vignarajah special treatment during a late-night traffic stop in which a sergeant turned off his body-worn camera.
The police department is investigating whether officers violated departmental policy last fall during the stop of Vignarajah, who is running with Young and Scott in a crowded Democratic primary. Their probe will include looking into whether the sergeant acted appropriately in turning off the camera.
Vignarajah on Tuesday dismissed coverage of the Sept. 26 traffic stop as “the politics of distraction."
Young, in Annapolis for a bill hearing Thursday, told reporters it appeared Vignarajah got preferential treatment.
“I doubt if any other citizen would have been afforded that opportunity," Young said. He did not want to comment further, saying the incident is under investigation.
Asked about the footage, Scott told reporters in Baltimore that “you get into public service to do good for all, not to get special treatment for yourself.”
Scott said that before he was elected a City Council member, he was “just a young, black boy in Baltimore.” As a former member of the city’s body camera task force, he said he believes the cameras exist to ensure everyone is being treated fairly.
“Young people in Baltimore who look like me or come from the places where I come from, they wouldn’t be afforded that same opportunity,” Scott said.
Maggie Gratz, chief of staff for the Vignarajah campaign, wrote in a statement Thursday that Young and Scott are commenting on the traffic stop because “they are desperate to talk about anything other than their failed leadership, a city in crisis, and five years of 300 murders on their watch.”
“Our campaign represents change and concrete solutions, which not only threatens their hold on power, but their actual jobs," she wrote. "We’re not going to let them get away with that, and we’ll remain focused on real issues and bringing real change to this city.”
At a WBFF-TV town hall meeting Thursday night, city police Sgt. Bill Shiflett admonished Vignarajah. Shiflett, who has been on medical leave since being shot last summer as he responded to a man with a gun at a methadone clinic, was among the audience members who asked questions of mayoral candidates at the event.
Shiflett said that while the sergeant should not have turned off his camera, Vignarajah abused his position and put the sergeant in a tough situation. And Shiflett said he blames the candidate for the officers at the scene now being under investigation, saying he put them “in jeopardy.”
Vignarajah said he regrets what happened, but wants to move forward.
Afterward, Shiflett said he attended the event to “defend the agency” and was not there on behalf of any candidate. He does not live in the city, and so cannot vote in the race.
An officer stopped Vignarajah in East Baltimore, according to footage obtained from his camera by The Baltimore Sun through a Maryland Public Information Act request. The footage shows the officer telling the former Maryland deputy attorney general he saw him driving without his headlights on; Vignarajah contests that. After checking Vignarajah’s license and registration, the officer says the registration was suspended due to an outstanding order from May to have the car repaired.
Two other officers come to the scene during the stop. Footage from the camera of one sergeant shows Vignarajah asking the sergeant, who approaches his car, whether his body camera is on. He responds that it is. 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.
The video of Vignarajah asking the sergeant to turn off his body camera was obtained and reported on by independent journalist Justine Barron.
The officer who pulled Vignarajah over planned at first to take the license plates off his car, but police eventually allowed Vignarajah to drive away.
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Former Democratic Mayor Sheila Dixon, who is running to regain her position, said she took issue with the fact that Vignarajah was able to drive himself home.
“This really exposes how people in this city are treated differently by the police, which is wrong and needs to be fixed by police leadership immediately,” she said.
T.J. Smith, another mayoral candidate and a former Baltimore Police spokesman, said that when the sergeant stopped recording video, he was left wondering: “'What was happening that you needed to tell the officer to turn off the camera?'”
After several recent scandals involving Baltimore elected officials, many mayoral candidates — including Vignarajah — have put transparency and accountability at the forefront of their campaigns.
“Those who are in elected office and those seeking to be mayor of Baltimore,” Democratic state Sen. Mary Washington said, “we have a higher standard when it comes to interactions with law enforcement.”