Charles Kingsley had finished his overnight shift as a security officer and was driving home on a recent weekday when he passed a police car heading in the opposite direction. The squad did a fast U-turn, came up behind him, flashed the lights and pulled Kingsley over on Brookdale Drive just a few blocks from his Brooklyn Park home.
Kingsley’s mind raced as he tried to figure out what he’d done wrong.
“I thought, I have my driver’s license and it’s current,” he remembers. “I have insurance. What am I missing?”
Turns out, one of his headlights was out.
Instead of a ticket, however, the officer gave him a voucher to get the problem fixed for free.
Similar scenes are playing out across the metro area as police in 16 communities are participating in the Lights On program administered by MicroGrants, a foundation that has as one of its missions helping low-income drivers keep their vehicles safe and in proper working order. Led by former Minneapolis City Council member Don Samuels, the foundation has put up $20,000 to cover repairs for minor issues such as burned out headlights and taillights or malfunctioning turn signals.
Officers, at their discretion, can give offending drivers a voucher worth up to $50 instead of a ticket, or both. The voucher can be redeemed for a no-cost repair at any of the eight Bobby & Steve’s Auto World locations in the metro area.
“This is a chance to do something positive,” said Brooklyn Park Police Deputy Chief Mark Bruley. “Before, if an officer handed something out it was always a citation. Now there is the opportunity to go fix something that was wrong with their vehicle.”
Equipment violations are among the most common reasons police pull drivers over, and often the stops can provoke anxiety, Bruley said.
It was a traffic stop for a broken taillight that escalated and ended with St. Anthony police shooting Philando Castile last summer. The fatal shooting sparked protests that lasted for weeks and led to manslaughter charges against the officer who pulled the trigger, Jeronimo Yanez.
In the wake of that incident, Samuels says programs such as Lights On can help overshadow the negative news about police and help rebuild trust.
“It turns what easily could be a confrontation into communication,” Samuels said. “It builds relationships between police departments and the communities they serve.”
That is not to say that police will turn a blind eye to obvious violations.
“It is not a substitute for a situation in which an arrest should take place,” said officer Corey Schmidt of the Minneapolis Police Department, which handed out 1,500 vouchers Tuesday. “It’s another tool on their belt to help people move forward.”
Dora Vargas, a single mother of two teens at home and a third in college, was stopped three times over two days for a broken turn signal. She said it was a fearful experience because a ticket would mean not being able to put food on the table. She was given a voucher after explaining her situation to each of the three officers who stopped her. She got the problem fixed.
“It made a big difference because I didn’t have the money,” she said. Brooklyn Park was one of the first agencies to start handing out the vouchers. Since then Maplewood, Minneapolis, St. Paul, Brooklyn Center, Columbia Heights, Crystal, Edina, Mounds View, Richfield, Robbinsdale, Roseville, Spring Lake Park, St. Louis Park and West St. Paul have signed on.
The Lights On program will continue as long as the original seed money lasts but could go on as long as donations come in, Samuels said. Vargas says she hopes the program will get more money to help folks like her. For Kingsley, he was excited to get his burned out headlight fixed.
“I thought I was getting a ticket,” he said. “The officer made my day.”
Tim Harlow • 612-673-7768