Minn. PDs hand out vouchers to repair broken car lights instead of tickets

The program, which is funded by donations, is “totally upending the dynamics of a traffic stop”

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By Kelly Smith
Star Tribune

MINNEAPOLIS — The blue and red lights flashed in her rearview mirror as a Black woman was stopped by a Minneapolis officer.

In the back seat, her children grabbed their phones, ready to capture what they assumed would be a negative interaction with the police. Instead, the officer, who had pulled the driver over for a broken headlight, surprised her, handing over a voucher for a free repair — not a ticket.

“There’s no other program like it and it is such a logical solution,” said Don Samuels, recapping the woman’s story. Samuels, a former Minneapolis City Council member, leads MicroGrants, a Minneapolis nonprofit that started the program Lights On! in 2017.

“It’s totally upending the dynamics of a traffic stop,” he said.

From Duluth to Rochester, a growing number of law enforcement agencies in Minnesota are signing on to the program, giving officers the option to hand out the free repair vouchers when they pull over a motorist for burned-out headlights or taillights.

This year, the program, which is funded by donations, has rapidly expanded to more than 100 agencies in Minnesota — covering nearly 90% of communities in the state — and has attracted national attention, partnering with departments in Kansas, New York, Tennessee and Iowa.

“There’s an urgency in law enforcement for this program,” Shakopee Police Chief Jeff Tate said, noting that his 50 officers have participated for a few years. “An overwhelming amount of officers want to do the right thing. This is a tool to bridge the gap.”

Since 2017, more than 4,000 light bulbs have been fixed through the program, often helping low-income Minnesotans and communities of color who are disproportionately pulled over by police. In Minneapolis, nearly half of the voucher recipients are Black.

The program takes on fresh urgency in Minnesota amid increasing tensions between police and communities, especially after the murder of George Floyd last year and the police killing last April of Daunte Wright, who was shot by a Brooklyn Center officer. While neither Floyd nor Wright were stopped for broken lights, Samuels said the program is a simple way to ease relationships.

Recipients, who can redeem the vouchers at nearly 150 local auto shops, often show up with tears in their eyes, grateful for the unexpected help, Samuels said. The program is funded by donations, including from the Chicago-based Joyce Foundation and Minnesota Vikings. The average cost of a repair is $53.

“It’s pretty significant,” said Eden Prairie Sgt. Tom Lowery of the repair voucher, which the west metro Police Department started handing out earlier this year. “It just helps build relationships.”

In southern Minnesota, the Fillmore County Sheriff’s Office this year became the 100th agency in the state to join the program. In Minneapolis, the Police Department changed its policy in January 2020 to only hand out the vouchers, no longer ticketing motorists for broken headlights or turn signals unless the equipment violation resulted in a crash or harmed someone else.

“It’s a no-brainer,” Tate said. “You don’t get a lot of win-win scenarios in law enforcement. This is one of them.”

While police may already give out mostly warnings for equipment violations like burned out lights, Tate said motorists are even more grateful to receive a voucher to help pay for the repair. He watched a body camera video of one of his officers approaching a driver, a young person of color with a burned out brake light. When the officer gave the man the voucher, his shoulders sunk down in relief as he fist bumped the cop.

“It’s changing the conversation and tone of a traffic stop,” Tate said. “This is a big deal for cops. Contrary to popular belief, they don’t want to write a ticket.”

In Minnesota, the program is free for departments, but outside Minnesota, MicroGrants funds half the costs — estimated at about $20,000 a year for a large city — while the city pays half.

The nonprofit was inspired to create the program after Philando Castile was shot and killed in a 2016 traffic stop by a St. Anthony police officer after being pulled over for a broken taillight. The officer, Jeronimo Yanez, who said he shot Castile because he thought he was reaching for a gun, was the first Minnesota police officer in modern history to be charged with the shooting death of a civilian, but he was later acquitted.

In Minneapolis, a 2018 Hennepin County report found that Black drivers are disproportionately pulled over for minor infractions, making up more than half of the motorists pulled over for equipment violations such as a broken taillight. This is despite the fact African Americans make up 19% of the city’s population.

MicroGrants plans to keep expanding Lights On to more police departments across the U.S., trying to make a difference one voucher at a time.

“Traffic stops are inequitable,” Samuels said. “It really presents an opportunity that is unique and very, very effective.”

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