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  • Justine Barron

Thiru on Message

The mayoral candidate attempts to rewrite the facts around what happened during a traffic stop and its significance, with help from the Baltimore Sun



Vignarajah at a press conference, 6/21, one day after the Suiter Files story dropped

Thiru Vignarajah, candidate for Baltimore mayor, has been managing the fallout from the release of body worn camera (BWC) footage from a September 2019 traffic stop by attempting to control the narrative.


As previously reported, on September 26th, 2019, Vignarajah was pulled over on Greenmount Avenue around one in the morning for driving with his lights off. He was found to have a suspended registration. He argued with the officer that pulled him over, Mark Smith, eventually accusing the officer of threatening him. This resulted in two sergeants being called to the scene 40 minutes after the initial stop. Vignarajah asked one of the sergeants, Olufemi Akinwande, to turn off his BWC.


The full story and videos of this incident were first shared with the public last week on this website. Since then, local media has been covering the fallout.


Vignarajah has sought to minimize the political damage by reducing what happened to a few key talking points, not all of them based in fact. It’s a strategy that has worked for him in the past. He won over supporters for his crime plan, for instance, by talking about a 2013 Black Guerilla Family gang bust that he led as a city prosecutor as if it were a success. In reality, as reported, about 85 percent of the 48 cases from the bust were unsuccessful, dropped, or resulted in short prison stays, usually time served. Yet, Vignarajah has taken his revisionary narrative of that case as a unqualified triumph from press conference to Fox News interview to podcast appearance for years.


This time, however, Vignarajah's story can be challenged by actual video evidence, as well as by a written policy.



"Common Sense and Discretion"




During a town hall forum last week, Vignarajah was confronted by Sergeant Bill Shiflett, a longtime member of the Baltimore Police Department (BPD). The video of this moment went viral. “Our policy… doesn’t allow for a person in a car stop to say please turn your camera off,” the sergeant said. “I believe you used your influence and your position to have those officers turn that camera off and that’s wrong.”


Vignarajah’s response was to double down on defending himself, while speaking over a hostile, shouting crowd: “Sergeant Shiflett and I may disagree about the interpretation of this policy,” he said. “I believe that officers have common sense and discretion to do this at the end of a stop.”


Shiflett is correct. BPD policy 824 is clear. Rule 1.5 states that BWC must remain activated “when present on the scene with prisoners, arrestees, suspects or any other individuals who are stopped by police, whether primary unit or not.” The next section of the policy covers exceptions, including for confidential informants and “victims, witnesses, and others” that are in a “voluntary interaction with police.” A traffic stop is not voluntary.



"The End of the Stop"


Vignarajah has been excusing his request for an unrecorded conversation by claiming that it happened at the "end of the stop" and "well into an hour-long stop," while waving his arms in a dismissive manner. He seems to be suggesting that the request was incidental to the overall stop, not a big deal.


In reality, Vignarajah's request occurred about 40 minutes into a roughly 60 minute stop, so not quite towards the end. More important, the conversation that he had off-camera with Sergeant Akinwande was pivotal, not incidental, to resolving the traffic stop. Up until that point, Vignarajah had not clarified whether he would arrange to tow his car. At one point, when Officer Smith removed his front license plate, the candidate shouted, “I’m calling Triple A.” But then, about five minutes later, he asked, “Can I call triple A or not?” as if he were being kept from doing so. Officer Smith had suggested that he call Triple A from the beginning.


It wasn't until Vignarajah talked to Akinwande off-camera that the stop was resolved, to the candidate's benefit. After they spoke, the sergeant got on the phone with the state police to see if there was a loophole in the law requiring officers to seize plates and tow cars. He allowed the candidate to drive himself home.


Unfortunately, the local media has given Vignarajah a pass on some of his revisionary accounts of the traffic stop. Some reporters have gone even further to help him minimize the damage, knowingly or not.


Vignarajah and the Baltimore Sun


Screenshot from a Sun columnist's article, promoting Vignarajah's crime plan


VIgnarajah began controlling the narrative of the traffic stop before it became public knowledge, and he got a lot of help from the Baltimore Sun. Just as my exposé was ready to go, the Sun had some of the story in the works too, although I didn’t know it at the time. Sun reporters had interviewed Vignarajah, but they only had video from Officer Smith and none from the two sergeants at the scene.


I reached out to Vignarajah for comment on Monday, January 20th, which was Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. I didn’t get a response.


Instead, about one to two hours after I sent the email, the Sun dropped its story on the traffic stop. It was brief and undramatic. By most standards, it was not a news story. It said that Vignarajah had been pulled over for his lights being out; his car had been suspended due to a repair order; he had been taking a female colleague from out-of-town on a tour; and he had gotten a little “snippy” with an officer but apologized.


“In the end, I thanked him for his service and I appreciated his patience," Vignarajah said, closing out the article. He was the only person that the article quoted.


That was it. The article came with three minutes of BWC out of an hour-long stop.


There is a lot of reason to believe that, in the Sun's haste to publish ahead of my story, the reporters hadn't watched the video yet, at least not closely. They included almost none of video's heated dialogue in their story, besides one sentence. They incorrectly reported that Vignarajah had been escorted home, when in fact he drove home alone—a big miss. (They have since updated the article to correct this mistake, but without noting the correction; they did note the error in their second article, published the next day, after much prompting.)


Most important, the Sun reporters missed the most consequential part of the story, namely that Vignarajah had asked Sergeant Akinwande to turn off his BWC. One of the reporters, Luke Broadwater, said on social media that he didn't include that moment because he didn't know about it. It was on Sergeant Akinwande's video, and he had only the full video from Officer Smith.


However—and here is the big rub—Officer Smith's video also tells the same story. When Akinwande returned from his conversation with Vignarajah, he said to Smith, "He told me to turn off my camera. I'm turning it back on. He doesn't want the interaction to be recorded."


Officer Smith BWC: Sergeant Akinwande admits that Vignarajah asked for his BWC off


The Sun had this moment, but it did not include it in its story on the traffic stop. Instead, it published Vignarajah's account of a long grumpy night and a repair order.


Bluntly, this is a lot of evidence that the either the Sun purposefully helped Vignarajah conceal the most damaging parts of the traffic stop story or (more likely) it published its story far before it was ready, simply to get ahead of mine. The answer could lie somewhere between. What else can explain that the nearly impossible coincidence of the Sun publishing this four month-old story, with so many glaring errors and missed opportunities—told entirely from Vignarajah's point-of-view—exactly after I reached out to the candidate for comment? The Sun does not typically drop major stories on a weekend or holiday, unless they are timely.


The Sun may have just wanted to the claim the scoop and beat the competition. The urgency to publish it on that day came from Vignarajah, however, the only person who knew that another story was coming. In an ideal world, journalists avoid serving the interests of their subjects, especially when those subjects are powerful and the story is exposing them. Baltimore is not always ideal.


Broadwater put in some additional time to minimize the traffic stop story. Responding to a tweet calling his story "minor stuff," he tweeted the following:




Broadwater has since deleted this much-criticized tweet, but I caught a (messy) screen grab in time. If the reporter considered the story of Vignarajah’s car being pulled over simply a “paperwork issue,” one wonders why he wrote the article in the first place.


Broadwater continued to help Vignarajah in his second article on the traffic stop, published the next day. In that story, he mischaracterized BWC policy as more flexible than it is. He described it in exactly the same way that Vignarajah did in a press conference on the same day. It wasn't until Shifflet corrected the record that the Sun has been addressing that issue responsibly.


Media complicity works in mysterious ways. We will probably never know everything that went on behind the scenes to make the Baltimore Sun effectively act as Vignarajah’s press agent as this story unfolded. What is known is that Vignarajah has written numerous op-eds for the Sun over the years. And he has been championed for years by Dan Rodricks, its main columnist.


If some of this behavior by Baltimore's paper of record seems vaguely unethical but you aren't sure, I'll just end this section by pointing out that the Sun has continued to update its initial articles and video on the traffic stop to make them seem more responsible without issuing formal corrections. Indeed, my fear is that it will correct things that I am now pointing out to make this story look absurd. (So I am keeping my eye on the stories and taking screenshots.)


The Sun has also continued to publish stories on the traffic stop that take information from my original article without always attributing it. Neither of these are standard in ethical mainstream journalism. Formal corrections/redactions and citations or links to the sources of articles are standard best practices. Yet, as other independent reporters in Baltimore know, the Sun does these kind of things all the time.



The Out-of-Town Colleague


The Sun’s brief first story on the traffic stop included a whole paragraph on Vignarajah’s passenger. It said that she was a "friend in town for a legal conference." Vignarajah "drove [her] around to show her the places where he prosecuted gang violence" because he wanted to “inspire her to work in Baltimore.” It was a curious journalistic choice to focus on her, given how minor her role was in the hour-long video.


The paragraph was probably a response to the rumor going around within BPD that Vignarajah had been caught with a sex worker that night. There is nothing in the video evidence to confirm or deny that rumor. The Sun’s article seems to have worked hard to dispel the rumor without even mentioning it.


Meanwhile, the Sun’s out-of-nowhere insistence that the woman in the car was Vignarajah's colleague does not entirely align with the video evidence of their interaction: When she left the vehicle to catch a ride share, Vignarajah did not say goodbye or even look at her. He kept arguing with Officer Smith. He did not pay attention as she walked across a very dark gas station in what he called a “dangerous” neighborhood. If that doesn’t suggest something about their relationship, it might suggest something about his character in that moment. It was not mentioned in the Sun’s story.


Unfortunately, the Sun did not take the time to redact the identity of the female passenger in the video it shared. Her identity has been a major discussion on social media. People have labeled her as a sex worker in demeaning ways. Some people have talked about trying to find her. While certainly a curiosity, this woman has now been made incredibly vulnerable. The story of her interaction with Vignarajah could have come to light without exposing her.



Did BPD Help Vignarajah Too?


Vignarajah’s efforts to control the narrative of the traffic stop before it became a public story may have gone further than the Baltimore Sun. We still do not know why the Sun journalists did not receive all of the relevant BWC footage from BPD. The most damaging footage was withheld from them, of Vignarajah directly asking for Akinwande BWC to be turned off. Broadwater has explained that he filed his request with BPD’s media department. My request went directly to the Document Compliance Unit, which is not as involved with politics. Did BPD media hold back from giving the Sun everything on purpose?


Two sources separately shared that BPD media spokesman Matt Jablow was pushed out of the department because of what happened with the Vignarajah traffic stop story, immediately after the story broke. According to these sources, Commissioner Michael Harrison discussed at a meeting that he was upset that the media department was receiving requests about a powerful person without his knowledge. I reached out to Jablow on the morning of January 22nd to confirm. He told me that he was, in fact, planning on leaving but that it had "been in the works." Later that day, he announced his resignation, telling the Sun that he wanted to work on some documentaries.


Placing Blame


Vignarajah has attempted to minimize the story of the traffic stop by characterizing it as a political hit. As he said in a press conference last week, “The fact that our political opponents are trying to talk about this now, the week after we’re leading in the polls and leading in fundraising is no surprise.”


In reality, there was one at least special interest group working on getting this story out behind-the-scenes, namely Baltimore police officers. It was through BPD channels that the story landed in my lap. I cannot speak for the Sun, but the only reason my story emerged as Vignarajah was leading in the polls was that it took me two months to receive the BWC videos (and I'm a slow writer).


Besides blaming political enemies, Vignarajah has also allowed Sergeant Akinwande to absorb a lot of blame. It was the sergeant who initially offered to turn off his BWC, he has pointed out. He only took him up on his offer. Vignarajah is not wrong on the facts there. The sergeant may have violated policy. He is now being investigated by Internal Affairs.


Yet, a moment on the BWC footage may provide some nuance or context in terms of the Sergeant's culpability. Just after Akinwande arrived, he recognized Vignarajah's name on the contact receipt.


"Oh my goodness, do you know who this is?" he asked Officer Smith. Then Akinwande let out a very deep audible sigh. On Smith's footage, he can be seen staring at the contact receipt for a view beats and then lifting his head towards the sky. It's a moment loaded with emotion. It's suggestive of a backstory around how Akinwande perceived Vignarajah, which may have influenced his decision to help him out that night.


"You put that sergeant in a position using your influence," Sergeant Shiflett told Vignarajah at the town hall forum. "You put that sergeant and that officer in a position where they could not win."


Sergeant Akinwande approaches Vignarajah's car


Shiflett's rant against Vignarajah led to stories and discussions about how to interpret BPD policy. Yet, his bigger point was not about policy; it was about privilege. With a few exceptions, most reporters have not held Vignarajah to account on that aspect of his behavior during the traffic stop.


As the story fades into the background of the media landscape, Vignarajah has managed to succeed partly in shaping the public conversation around his talking points - a minor paperwork issue, a confusing policy, political enemies. He has yet to answer questions about how he aligns a campaign platform of transparency and anti-corruption with accepting special favors from police officers, for instance. He has yet to explain how he can align promoting the "spy plane" so aggressively with wanting to be protected from police surveillance himself. And he has yet to explain exactly what special privileges he would encourage Baltimore residents to invoke when they get pulled over by police.





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