WYPR Mayoral Interviews: Thiru Vignarajah
Thiru Vignarajah attended Yale University and Harvard Law School, where he served as president of the Harvard Law Review. He went on to clerk for Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer, and then served as a federal prosecutor at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Baltimore, working under then-U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein.
Vignarajah later moved to the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office, where he headed the Major Investigations Unit. In 2014, he was appointed Deputy Attorney General for Maryland under Attorney-General Brian Frosh, a position he left to work on the transition team for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.
In 2017, Vignarajah ran an unsuccessful Democratic primary campaign for Baltimore City State's Attorney. He is currently a litigation partner at the law firm DLA Piper in Baltimore.
A May poll commissioned by WYPR, The Baltimore Sun and University of Baltimore places Vignarajah just outside the group of three leading candidates in the race.
Speaking with Midday host Tom Hall in May, Vignarajah highlighted his experience as a prosecutor.
“With all due respect to the terrific cast of candidates that are in this race, there's only one crimefighter that really has a concrete plan.”
Excerpts from the interview
Has your approach to crime reduction and violence reduction changed at all with the advent of COVID-19?
I don't think anything fundamentally changes about the strategy, what I think is remarkable is how resilient violent crime has been in the face of this virus and in the face of this city lockdown.
We've been on lockdown and yet we have more murders as of now than we did last year and last year was the worst in Baltimore history per capita. That's pretty remarkable. St. Louis, which rivals our per capita homicide rate one year after another, has seen a 50% drop in homicides during the coronavirus. Baltimore is virtually unique in this crime problem, which explains why this is the number one concern.
We have focused on this issue in part because this is what I’ve devoted my life to. I’ve been fighting crime my whole career as a federal, city and state prosecutor. We also know that this is the biggest obstacle that holds us back. I often say it’s not the only problem, it’s not the only priority, but it has to be the first one.
With all due respect to the terrific cast of candidates that are in this race, there's only one crimefighter that really has a concrete plan and a number people have pointed it out: former Police Chief Jim Johnson from Baltimore County, former head of the FOP Bob Cherry, the former Chief Judge of the Baltimore City Circuit Court Wanda Heard, the former head of the NAACP [Marvin] "Doc" Cheatham. [They all] have said this is the only strategy that has any hope of bringing crime down.
And it's the one that we can actually achieve without mandatory minimums or mass incarceration or cash bail or policies of zero tolerance. We can do it in a way that is responsible and sustainable and just.
Related to COVID-19, policing is a different thing right now in terms of officers needing to come in contact with suspects. Is police work going to be able to continue in a way that we're used to?
The strategies that we need right now, the same that we needed four months ago, don't require the kind of interactions that you're talking about. The street sweeps, the mass arrests, that's not how we drove murders below 200 in 2011 and 2012 when I was chief of major investigations.
We’re creating stronger, better, fewer cases against the worst gangs and the worst criminals and we’re using the kinds of technology and forensic tools that didn't require the kinds of things you're talking about because we're down 600 officers.
40 percent of DNA and fingerprints from burglary crime scenes get hits off the federal database. That’s the highest return-on-investment of any forensic category and right now in Baltimore City we don't test burglary crime scene evidence because we have such a backlog. That's ridiculous. Focusing on the ground camera network, we’ve proposed a $100 rebate to residential and commercial property owners if they register their private security cameras with the police department, so we have a mosaic of cameras. Patterson Park, other neighborhoods are already doing this. The city can help.
The added aerial surveillance program--these are all strategies that don't require the kinds of interactions that we might be able to do if we had 600 officers, but we particularly can't do in light of coronavirus, but that's not what we need to rely on. Between wiretaps and aerial surveillance and burglary crime scene evidence, these are strategies that can thrive, that can be effective, no matter whether coronavirus is an obstacle or whether you're down 600 officers.
The reason I know these things is not because I was president of the Harvard Law Review and clerked on the Supreme Court, it’s because I was a prosecutor in Baltimore City. If you look at other cities that have struggled with the problem of crime: Detroit elected a former prosecutor Mike Duggan, crime went down; Chicago elected a former prosecutor, Lori Lightfoot, crime went down. New York City, Seattle, there's countless examples of where when crime was soaring, the people turned to a former prosecutor and because of a prioritization and expertise, different strategies were used in each of those cities, but the result was the same. That's what I'm pledging to deliver to Baltimore and frankly, there’s no one else in the race that can deliver that and if people listening to this want to have the problem of crime solved, I respectfully submit that we have the best chance of delivering that.
The surveillance plane program began its trial period a few weeks ago. It’s still early, but do you have any information to suggest that it has been a helpful tool in prosecuting and identifying people who are perpetrating crimes?
I don't have any more information than you do. I think there's a measure of transparency that's really needed here. I've been an early and vocal advocate of this even before I was a candidate. I wrote a piece in The Baltimore Sun that said that the way this was done four years ago was indefensible and likely illegal, but then I outlined a strategy for how you could do it effectively. To limit it to homicides, shootings and carjackings during the pilot phase. Require police to get a warrant each and every time in every case. To do an audit every three to six months where you publish a list of all the instances in which it was used to see whether or not it resulted in arrest or see if it cleared the case, as they say.
Those are the kinds of things that we do with wiretaps. We should do the exact same thing with this advanced surveillance tool. We were the only ones advocating for it when it was controversial. Eventually a poll came out and I think five of the six major candidates all came around and said it was a good idea but we didn't need polling for that.
The reason I'm confident it's going to be helpful is because I prosecuted cases where a similar technology was helpful. I actually prosecuted two carjackers where a principal piece of the evidence was aerial footage from a traffic helicopter. Captain Roy Taylor was literally shouting out the coordinates of the carjackers as they crisscrossed the city. Ground camera footage from a security camera as the two perpetrators jumped out of the car caught them close up. That's the kind of technology that we need to improve our clearance rate, which I respectfully will tell you is closer to 20 percent than 30 or 40 percent, which is what you hear from the police.
Eight out of ten murderers can't get away with literally murder without sending the wrong signal to the criminal element. If you have a murder that happens right now at 24th and Barclay, my homicide detectives are going to go out there, they're going to look around for a camera, they’re going to spend hours reviewing it and hoping that the camera is pointing in the right direction when the murder happened. Now we can see the perpetrator running three blocks north, three blocks east, we can overlay the ground camera network and we can get close up footage to see what that person was looking like, not only after the crime, but for the 15 minutes before the crime as well. It’s a very powerful tool and only a prosecutor can appreciate what a difference it could make to police as well as to prosecutors to get this crime rate down.
Respond to critics who say that because you are so closely associated with the Arnold family that is funding this surveillance plane trial in Baltimore, that when a decision has to be made about whether or not to invest city funds in it, your critics say that you can't be impartial in that regard because you're getting so much support from the people who are behind this.
We don’t take positions based on our donors, we take positions that we believe are right for Baltimore. I’m a data guy, you can probably hear it in my voice. I use a lot of numbers. John and Laura Arnold are as well.
Now let's be clear, I didn’t know who they were before I wrote the piece in The Baltimore Sun that outlined my position and the same position I wrote in the local paper of record is the same position I have today. This is a data-driven question. They are a data-driven foundation. They are data-driven people. So am I. If this doesn't improve, if the audit shows that it is not worth the fiscal cost and the privacy concerns, of course, you should shut it down. But if it shows that the clearance rate is going up from 20 percent to 40 percent to 60 percent as I predict, then it's worth it and let's be very clear--it’s a simple barometer. Are we solving homicides, shootings and carjacking at a higher rate? Are we securing convictions at a higher rate? There’s no way that you can juke those stats. It's either resulting in an arrest and a conviction or it's not. This is a pretty easy one to measure and the numbers will tell us whether this is making a difference or not. I believe it will.
Listener question: I'm still troubled by having read in The Sunabout [a traffic stop where] Vignarajah’s registration had expired and he asked the police officer to turn off his body cam.
This is a situation where I certainly could have handled myself better but I think it's really important for the facts to be out there. This was 40 minutes into a routine traffic stop, it was not at the beginning of the stop, but at the end. A second officer had come over and asked me first whether or not I wanted the camera off--he actually said initially “I'm happy to talk either way.” He went away. He came back a few minutes later and I then asked him.
My friend already left in an Uber to go back to her hotel. I was just waiting for the tow. I certainly could have handled it better, but there was nothing nefarious. We actually had former Chief Judge Wanda Heard and former Councilwoman Rikki Spector review everything, review all of the body cameras. It's important to emphasize that the other body cameras had been on the entire time. They were never turned off. The officer who was there for the first 35 minutes, that [camera] was on the whole time. I was tired. I was exhausted. I certainly could have handled it better. They actually published a report of what they found, they reviewed the text messages, everything, all the footage, the applicable law. If you Google 'Thiru Vignarajah, Wanda Heard, Rikki Spector,' you will see their piece in citybizlist that outlines it. That was what I thought needed to be done because scrutiny is needed for this election.
I'm so proud of my record but my pledge is not that I'm never gonna make a mistake. I will make mistakes, but I will be honest about them. I will be transparent about them. I’ll answer every question.
Listener question: I think there’s a significant amount of crime in the management and departments of city government. How would you approach corruption in the Department of Public Works?
We just issued a new commercial called ‘Crime scene.’ And the last scene of it--it’s very provocative--is City Hall wrapped in crime scene tape. City Hall has become a crime scene and you're absolutely right, each of these agencies has not just high-grade corruption and low-grade incompetence, but also some nickel-and-dime corruption.
When when you have a turnaround CEO come into a failing $3.5 billion corporation, which is what I think Baltimore City is right now, they don't just fire 15,000 people. What they do is they focus on middle management, they identify the people that are strong and they reinforce them and they keep them, and the folks that need to go, they make sure that they go.
I think if we're going to really root out corruption at the mid-tier level, that's where we have to focus. We have pledged to do a top-to-bottom audit within 100 days so that the public will know what I know about how the money is being spent and how the money is being misspent. We have pledged to have hundred day plans so that you have a barometer every three months of how we are performing.
We have pledged to have a public Citistat so the public can hear how our yardsticks are being used within each of the agencies. And we have pledged in any agency that has overtime, to really crack down on the overtime abuse. I say this in the context of the police often, I have so much respect for the police, but there are people that are abusing over time. Those eight GTTF (Gun Trace Task Force) officers collected $1.3 million in police overtime during the course of their conspiracy and the red flags were there.
An audit top-to-bottom, combined with fully funding the Ethics Commission, combined with dramatically increasing [Baltimore Inspector General] Isabel Cumming's Office are three very concrete things that we can do. We can root out corruption, you’ve just gotta have somebody who is committed to doing it and prosecutors really like doing that stuff.
There are black and white voters who think that it's important to have an African American mayor because we are an African American majority city. You are from Sri Lanka. What would the ramifications be if the city does not choose to elect an African American mayor?
For a time I was worried that a South Asian Hindu would not be received well. And somebody said to me, “Thiru, you seem equally comfortable in a black Baptist church as you do in a white corporate boardroom.” And I laughed and I said “No, no, you’ve misunderstood. I'm equally uncomfortable. I'm the only South Asian Hindu in those rooms.”
I’ve found a way to find bridges, to form a relationship with people of all different backgrounds--what I’ve had to my whole life, from Woodlawn High School, which was overwhelmingly African American, to Yale College and Harvard Law School, which were overwhelmingly not. I have had to find a way to navigate those issues.
You’ve got candidates that are trying to divide and conquer this city on the basis of race. It's so divisive. It's breaking the hearts of white voters and black voters. We're not going to do that. We have built a diverse coalition all along. Our leadership team, the people that have endorsed us are white, black, Jewish, everything and that's the kind of coalition that Baltimore needs.
Diversity is one of our strengths, it ought to be celebrated. We talk about two Baltimores. Two Baltimores is a tragedy to overcome. It is a problem to be lamented. It is not a political opportunity to [be] exploited. And it's so frustrating to see other candidates doing that. We will never do that. I will never allow the city to be divided by race and I actually think that we put ourselves in a pretty good position because I'm not white, I'm not black, I am Baltimore. And I’m honored to have the chance to lead.
The transcript of this interview was condensed for the web. Listen to the entire conversation below.
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