Thiru On Greenmount
Body camera footage shows a Baltimore mayoral candidate in a different light
Note: I reached out to Thiru Vignarajah for comment on this article and, about an hour later, The Baltimore Sun dropped its version of the story that covered in him a much more flattering light, getting ahead of this one and leaving out many of his actions. For more on that, read the follow-up story after this one.
Around one in the morning on September 26th, 2019, Thiru Vignarajah, candidate for Baltimore mayor, was driving on Greenmount Avenue, near East 24th Street, passing through a neighborhood that has played a major role in his career. In 2013, as Deputy State’s Attorney for the Major Investigations Unit, he led the prosecution of dozens of suspected Black Guerrilla Family (BGF) gang members who controlled the drug trade around that intersection. He has spoken about this case often as a model of the type of “complex, RICO-style, multi-defendant” prosecutions that he plans to implement, if elected.
This time, Vignarajah found himself on the other side of policing on Greenmount. As seen on body worn camera (BWC) footage obtained from the Baltimore Police Department (BPD), the candidate was pulled over by Officer Mark A. Smith for driving his Toyota Camry with his lights off. Vignarajah was driving with a woman in his front passenger seat.
Stopping in front of the BP gas station at the corner of Greenmount and East 25th Street, Officer Smith informed the candidate that he would receive a warning for the infraction. After checking on his license and registration, Smith explained that the car’s registration was suspended; it would need to be towed from the scene.
For the next ten or so minutes, Vignarajah challenged the officer’s justification for both the stop and the suspended tags in a heated, often demeaning manner. Later, he requested that a sergeant, who arrived on the scene, turn off his BWC so that they could speak without being recorded. The sergeant complied. Shortly thereafter, Vignarajah was given permission to drive home on suspended tags. (The sergeant, who had recognized the candidate, previously offered to turn off his BWC for him.)
Vignarajah’s request for privacy while in police custody is notable for a candidate who has focused on the issue of transparency. “I am running, in part, to restore faith in government,” he said, after former Mayor Catherine Pugh’s resignation. “I want to usher in an unprecedented period of transparency and accountability.” The request is also notable given his support for the aerial surveillance program, which collects location data on everyone in Baltimore for use by police without public permission.
BWC footage of Vignarajah requesting a sergeant turn off his camera
The timestamps on these videos reflect Greenwich Mean Time, which is four hours ahead during Daylight Savings Time. The real-world time has been corroborated by Open Baltimore calls for service.
“Most police officers in Baltimore are honorable,” Vignarajah said in a 2018 interview with Baltimore Sun columnist Dan Rodricks while running for State’s Attorney. “They’re trying to do the right thing.” Over the years, the candidate has often expressed support for the challenges BPD officers face, especially with reduced staffing. “I don’t blame officers for feeling under siege,” he stated in August.
Yet, during the September 26th traffic stop, Vignarajah repeatedly challenged Officer Smith’s authority and decisions after learning that his tags were suspended. When Smith suggested that he call Triple A or roadside assistance, the candidate replied, “I don’t want to be up for another hour is my problem.”
Vignarajah became more confrontational after Smith removed his front license plate. “Can you explain why that was necessary?” he asked.
“Sir, I advised you what’s going on. Maryland wants your tags,” the officer responded, referring to the state law that requires police to confiscate suspended tags immediately. Vignarajah did not deny that his tags might have been properly suspended. He said that he had gotten a “repair order” for a broken tail light fixed in May but might not have turned in the necessary paperwork.
The candidate shifted to questioning why Smith pulled him over.
“I told you. Your headlights were off, sir,” the officer answered.
“No, I turned them off when I pulled over,” Vignarajah said.
“No I was sitting right there, and I saw you with your headlights off,” the officer said.
“No, I turned them off when I pulled behind you in front of the liquor store,” the candidate replied. As this argument escalated, Vignarajah’s passenger exited the vehicle without exchanging goodbyes with him.
Eventually, Smith said, “I don’t understand why you’re arguing the stop. I’m giving you a warning for that violation.”
“Because if you don’t have a lawful basis for the-” Vignarjah said.
“I do have a lawful basis,” Smith responded, interrupting him. “I saw you operating a motor vehicle with your headlights off.”
“We are 600 patrol officers down, and that’s what you’re doing in Greenmount?” Vignarajah said.
The candidate seemed to be challenging Smith’s priorities that night. Commissioner Michael Harrison’s Crime Reduction Strategy, published in July 2019, specifically designates units for “directed traffic enforcement and to provide additional visibility and stability in the target areas after critical incidents occur.” As Smith later explained to his sergeant, he had been “monitoring the high drug traffic area on the 2400 block,” when Vignarajah passed with his lights off.
Maryland Judiciary Case Search records show that, as Deputy State’s Attorney, Vignarajah was involved in the prosecution of some cases that involved traffic stops and criminal traffic offenses.
After a bit more back and forth on the basis of the initial stop, Officer Smith asked, “Do you want me to give a ticket and we take it to the judge? Do you want that route?”
“Is that really how you want to handle this?” Vignarajah responded. He then accused the officer of “threatening” him and asked for his sergeant’s name, a request he repeated twice. Smith called Sergeant Olufemi Akinwande to the scene.
Vignarajah’s manner was immediately more respectful with Akinwande: “Nice to meet you sergeant,” he said. “I respect you guys very much. I appreciate the risks you’ve taken.” He asked if the sergeant’s body camera was on.
“It very much is on, sir. Do you want my body camera to remain on sir?” Akinwande asked.
“If you want to take it off... I’m happy to talk to you,” Vignarajah replied.
“That’s really up to you,” the sergeant said. Minutes later, Vignarajah asked him directly to turn it off. The rest of that conversation went unrecorded.
BPD policy 824, entitled “Body Worn Cameras,” mandates officers keep BWCs “powered on at all times while worn on the body,” including “when present on the scene with prisoners, arrestees, suspects or any other individuals who are stopped by police, whether primary unit or not.” The policy outlines exceptions for witnesses and victims, who may request privacy.
After talking with Vignarajah off-camera, Sergeant Akinwande and another sergeant who had arrived on the scene, Cameron Battle, researched ways to help the candidate leave the scene in his car, unbothered. Akinwande spoke to someone from Maryland State Police about whether there was possible “discretion” around letting someone drive on suspended tags.
“He’s only going over one district,” Battle said. “So if anybody in the Eastern stops him, we’re here.” Vignarajah had explained that he would be driving to his apartment in Federal Hill, about 3.3 miles away.
Between shutting off his BWC and going out of his way to set him free, it would seem as if Sergeant Akinwande granted the candidate special favors that an average East Baltimore driver might not receive. “We’re going above and beyond to help you out, help out the situation,” he said. At the same time, he told Officer Smith, “It doesn’t matter who he is,” and that his status “doesn’t play anything.”
Smith was visibly frustrated by the stop. He vented to Battle about how challenging the driver had been. He expressed concern that he would get in trouble himself. “I don’t know why I’m the villain,” he said. Both sergeants reassured him that he did nothing wrong and that he was still in charge of the scene. Smith didn’t seem to feel the same way: “You guys are the bosses,” he said. “Whatever you want done.”
Ultimately, Akinwande instructed Smith to let the candidate go, with a warning and a reminder: “He has to take care of it as soon as possible,” he said, "cause we’re supposed to mail the tags to MVA.”
“I was gonna take in the tags tomorrow,” Smith responded. “I usually do. I’m a traffic guy.”
Vignarajah ended up driving away from the scene, without a ticket, about an hour after the initial stop. He had criticized Smith for wasting time on traffic offenses, but his own actions resulted in diverting the officer from his regular patrol duties for nearly an hour, as well as diverting two sergeants for more than twenty minutes, on Greenmount.
BWC footage of Viganrajah arguing with Officer Smith
BWC footage of Sergeant Akinwande approaching
The Press Conference
About six weeks after that traffic stop, on November 11, Vignarajah held a press conference in front of the newly renovated Greenmount Recreation Center, at the same intersection where Officer Smith reported him driving with his lights off. The candidate rallied the community against crime.
Flanked by 18 people—including victims of gun violence and their mothers—Vignarajah introduced his 20-point “End the Bloodshed” crime plan. More than once, he emphasized the significance of the Greenmount location and date: “Why are we here, at this place, at this time?” he asked. He answered by referring to a milestone case in his career:
“In November of 2013, this same month, six years ago, I led a first-of-its-kind gang investigation and prosecution of the Black Guerilla Family that had terrorized this neighborhood for years,” he said. The case garnered headlines at the time for its sheer ambition: 48 individuals were charged as co-defendants based on their alleged involvement in BGF and/or its crimes.
The case was also notable for its untested approach: About 80 percent of the 48 co-defendants were charged with a rarely used “criminal gang activity” statute, which is the state’s version of a federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) charge. About 80 percent of defendants were also charged with conspiracy to commit murder.
Vignarajah cited the subsequent drop in homicides in the area as evidence of the case’s success: “In a five block radius or so, around 24th and Barclay, there had been 52 homicides and shootings for five years,” he said. “The same radius [after the bust] went 18 months without a single murder—not one.” The Baltimore Sun homicide map partly confirms this claim. While the number of reported homicides greatly dropped within that radius after November 2013—from, on average, ten per year—there were two reported homicides within that radius during 2014.
Vignarajah has talked about the BGF bust repeatedly over the last two years of campaigning. It also came up during his September traffic stop: “I know how dangerous this neighborhood is. I was giving a tour,” he said to Officer Smith, referring to his female passenger. “I was showing her part of the cases where I prosecuted the gang that dominated this neighborhood. It’s ironic that I’m being pulled over.”
BWC footage of Viganrajah explaining that he was giving his passenger a "tour"
The Gang Bust
During the November press conference, Viganarjah described the 2013 BGF gang bust as a template for the kind of policing he will implement as mayor, pointing to the subsequent drop in crime as evidence of its success. Yet, several Baltimore Sun articles during 2014 and 2015 exposed how few of the individual cases resulted in significant prison time. Of the 48 defendants, eleven were charged with a violent crime, and only three of those resulted in violent crime convictions.
Almost half of the defendants pleaded guilty to criminal gang involvement charges; only four pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges. Defendants who pleaded guilty to those charges received, on average, two years in prison, mostly for time served. Charges were dropped entirely for 14 of the defendants. (The federal government convicted nine of the defendants in a separate case in 2017.)
Multiple police and prosecutors interviewed for this article, who requested anonymity, have shared what went wrong with the 2013 BGF case. BPD detectives were pressured by BPD and SAO leadership to identify drug dealers and others as gang members using verification checklists. Maryland’s gang statute requires a high burden of proof, but BPD was offering such evidence as tattoos, tagged photos on social media, and informants pointing to other defendants to avoid charges themselves. It was a classic witch hunt, with people being targeted and labeled based on their associations. It made for tough cases in court, according to one prosecutor.
Throughout 2014 and 2015, defense attorneys also spoke out to media about outrageous delays in receiving discovery evidence from the state. By law, discovery evidence is supposed to be turned over within 30 days. Vignarajah’s department frequently filed requests for trial delays and protective orders to seal evidence from defendants. Some defendants were in the dark even about the nature of their charges a year or more after they were charged.
The discovery file from one of the 48 defendants, a man in his thirties who was working full-time in a retail store at the time of his arrest (and wishes to remain unnamed), includes only one statement of probable cause: he was accused of “conspir[ing] with individuals known and unknown to distribute drugs,” with no details about when or where this happened. A motion filed by the state linked the man to BGF because he was “recorded having conversations” with someone, who was “recorded having conversations” with a third person, who was identified as BGF, with no mention of the content of the calls.
Vignarajah blamed the large number of cases and years of evidence to review for the delays in turning over discovery—a result of his own mammoth, unprecedented case. Yet, in a February 2014 letter, he offered an “invitation” to the retail worker’s defense attorney to receive “an overview of the specific charges and corresponding evidence against your client” provided that the defendant would be willing to attend a “reverse proffer and/or proffer” meeting - that is, consider a plea deal. Discovery evidence that was being withheld would be available in exchange for cooperation. Tactics like this worked for some defendants, who took plea deals in 2014 to expedite their freedom without ever seeing the full evidence against them.
At the end of 2014, Vignarajah left SAO for the Attorney General’s (AG) office, with more than 70 percent of the cases still unresolved. The new State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby’s administration resolved the rest of them during 2015 and 2016.
Despite these issues and outcomes, Vignarajah proposes to replicate the approach of the 2013 BGF bust on an even bigger scale, if elected. As he announced during the November press conference, he will “conduct simultaneous wiretap investigations” in 12 neighborhoods, “culminating in coordinated arrests of 150-250 violent criminals around April 2021, just before the annual surge of gun violence.” His plan begs the question of what kinds of charges would be filed preemptively against more than 100 individuals that would not constitute, effectively, mass incarceration. His plan also would require the buy-in of the State’s Attorney, an elected official that does not report to the Mayor.
Mass incarceration may be to credit for the period of relative peace in the Barclay neighborhood following the 48-person bust in November 2013. By the second half of 2015, most of the defendants were free. As Vignarajah himself points out, the recidivism rate in Baltimore is more than 70 percent.
Correlation is not causation, but, by the end of 2015, according to the Sun’s homicide map, the murder rate in the five-block radius around Barclay and East 24th Street was as high as ever, with four homicides in December 2015 alone.
During his November press conference on Greenmount, Vignarajah invited a few gunshot victims and the mothers of deceased gunshot victims to speak. “I was suicidal. I was homicidal. They have no idea of the marks that they left,” Donna Marshall said about the loss of her son two years before.
After a few impassioned stories, Vignarajah spoke for 30 minutes, laying out the details of his 20-point crime plan, with a heavy emphasis on blunt statistics: “Baltimore City has the highest lethality index, with one in three [shootings] ending in death,” he said. “Our killers use bigger bullets, more bullets, and they finish their victims off with headshots. Last year, headshots were almost sixty percent.”
Vignarajah does not shy away from presenting himself as a technocrat, armed with “strategies and tactics and plans” to solve social ills. His lawyerly manner of speech has contributed to his reputation as the “brains of the bunch,” as one commentator described his candidacy. The September 26th traffic stop revealed a rare moment in which this practiced debater was unable to make a convincing case, as Officer Smith did not budge from what he felt was his legal obligation to take the license plates.
Vignarajah’s reputation as an intellect is bolstered by his resume. He attended Yale University as an undergraduate and Harvard Law School, then clerked for Supreme Court Judge Stephen Breyer. A Democrat, Vignarajah’s career trajectory is reminiscent of many prominent members of his party. Like former President Barack Obama, he was the editor of the Harvard Law Review. Like Pete Buttigieg, he worked for the McKinsey consulting firm after graduating from college. Like Kamala Harris, he worked as a prosecutor at multiple levels of government.
In 2016, when he left the AG’s office, Vignarajah had been planning to work on Hillary Clinton’s presidential transition team, he told the Baltimore Sun. Neera Tanden, a Clinton strategist, has been a donor and supporter. Throughout 2017, Vignarajah published op-eds and made television appearances that were critical of the Trump administration, including its Muslim ban.
Locally, Vignarajah’s politics are harder to pin down, although that is not unusual in Maryland, where the state’s registered Democrats overwhelming support its Republican governor. (He just hired one of Hogan’s former campaign aides.)
On the progressive end, the candidate has declared support for ending mandatory minimum sentences, cash bail, and life sentences for juveniles. He promotes legalized marijuana and free universal pre-K and college. Yet, Vignarajah has not endeared himself locally to progressives, with his advocacy for the surveillance plane, aggressive use of the gang statute, and zealous prosecution of Adnan Syed, from the Serial podcast.
Compared to other candidates, Vignarajah also receives disproportionate coverage from Fox 45, the station owned by the conservative Sinclair News Group, headquartered just outside of Baltimore. During the last two months, Vignarajah was interviewed in the studio nine times. Other candidates appeared in studio once or twice during that time, if at all. Vignarajah has appeared at all of the station’s “City in Crisis” Town Hall meetings, and Fox 45 has covered all of the candidate’s press conferences. He is also quoted favorably in many of its news stories.
Theoretically, an anti-Trump Democrat and a conservative Sinclair-owned station should make strange bedfellows, but such is politics in Baltimore. A recent Fox article condemned “progressive approaches to fighting crime,” like ending cash bail, while praising Vignarajah’s proposals instead. The article failed to mention that Vignarajah supports ending cash bail.
Maryland’s shifting, centrist political landscape can leave Baltimore residents vulnerable to candidates who chase special interests or trends over principles. Viganarjah insists he is not that kind of candidate. He has been harshly critical of what he calls “pay-for-play” politics. He denied that pay-for-play was a factor in his support of the aerial surveillance program, after it was revealed that John and Laura Arnold, the billionaire Texas donors backing the program, hosted a December fundraiser in Houston for him. The Arnolds also donated personally to his mayoral campaign.
Vignarajah first began discussing the surveillance plane program in a Baltimore Sun op-ed in October 2018, shortly after its owner launched a local campaign to bring it back to Baltimore. The candidate offered qualified support: the program should only be used for serious offenses with public oversights and a warrant process. In the same op-ed, he pointed out that the Arnolds are progressive donors, who support the ACLU and eyeglasses for poor Baltimore youth. (John Arnold made billions working for Enron. He seeks to end public pensions.)
Within a year, Vignarajah’s support of the aerial surveillance program became more full-throated: "We need every tool available in the toolbox at this moment of crisis,” he said in September. By sounding initially cautious about implementation, Vignarajah helped market the idea that the “spy plane” could be a useful, constitutional tool, rather than what many progressives have feared - an untested, greenhouse-emitting means for a private company to collect questionably useful location data, without permission, for indiscriminate use by its owners and law enforcement. The ACLU still opposes its implementation.
Vignarajah’s campaign stands out among his rivals in how often he gives press conferences, As some observers have pointed out on Twitter, the candidate seems to travel with his own podium.
After Pugh’s indictment in May, for instance, Vignarajah stood behind a podium in front of the federal courthouse and, with several local news outlets in attendance, provided his legal analysis of the indictment. He concluded, “What Baltimore needs now is not another politician but a prosecutor.” He then took a couple of questions, thanked everyone for coming, and walked away from his own podium quickly. None of the news cameras in attendance captured the setting up or removal of the podium by his campaign. There is not typically a podium in front of the federal courthouse.
Viganarjah’s staged and dramatic press conferences create television moments out of public statements; they provide the veneer of official business for someone that does not currently hold office.
The candidate’s concerns about his public image also came into play during his September 26th traffic stop. He asked both Officer Smith and Sergeant Akinwande if their cameras were on, and he asked the sergeant to turn his off. When the sergeant returned to his colleagues after that unrecorded conversation, he said, “He told me to turn off my camera. I’m turning it back on. So no cameras today. He doesn’t want the interaction to be recorded.”
Vignarajah may have been concerned about the BWC of his stop being released to the public. Nevertheless, he ramped up his argument with Officer Smith after he confirmed that he was being filmed. He also knew he was being filmed when he asked Sergeant Akinwande to turn off his camera. For such a media-savvy candidate, he allowed himself to be captured, more than once, off-message.
Full videos of the stop:
Frames were redacted to hide his license plate number when there was no dialogue. Otherwise, these are the complete videos provided by BPD:
Follow-up story: How Vignarajah attempts to spin this story, with the help of The Baltimore Sun.