When you get pulled over by a squad car, it rarely brightens your day.
But local motorists soon may be in for a pleasant surprise, as the Duluth Police Department prepares to join the ranks of other state law enforcement agencies participating in an initiative called "Lights On!"
Duluth Police Chief Mike Tusken said the unique program provides officers with vouchers they can hand out offering drivers a free repair at a local garage for a broken or burnt-out light.
Duluth police execute between 18,000 and 21,000 traffic stops per year, and Tusken said: “Many times it’s for equipment violations, and many times the people that we’re stopping do not have the means to fix their equipment violations. So, then obviously there’s a disproportionality in the number of times they get stopped, and that feeds into a lack of trust in policing. Perhaps that leads to people feeling targeted or profiled.”
Duluth Police Lt. Tim Jazdzewksi has reached out to about a half-dozen local garages scattered across the city in recent weeks, asking them to participate, and he hopes to have the program up and operating by December.
Jazdzewksi said the program has proven to be an easy sell. “It’s good for the police. It’s good for the community. And it’s good for the service stations, because it gets their name out there.”
But there is admittedly little financial motivation for garages to sign on.
Participating businesses are reimbursed for the cost of lights and labor, but at a significantly discounted rate, said Mike McCloskey, chief operating officer of MicroGrants, the Minneapolis-based nonprofit that operates the program.
“Nobody’s making any money on this,” McCloskey said.
So far, Jazdzewksi said he has signed on five local garages: Morgan Park Service; Thompson T-Express; Duke’s Towing and Service; Allstar Service and Accessories; and Automedics
“It just comes down to helping out the community,” said Darin Agenter, owner of Allstar.
“There are a lot of good people out there who get themselves into a fix, when it could be easily rectified by something like this,” Agenter said.
McCloskey noted that a ticket for something as minor as a non-functioning light can have serious repercussions for a person who is barely getting by. Not only does that driver now face the expense of making a needed repair but also the cost of paying off a ticket. Neglect that ticket, and it could snowball into a license suspension and ensuing employment complications or additional tickets for driving on a suspended license.
Tusken called Lights On! “a remarkable program that’s really going to help us build trust and give people a hand up when they need it.”
Jazdzewksi noted that being pulled over by law enforcement can be a stressful experience for any driver.
“This program reduces that stress. It results in a positive contact,” he said.
The vouchers are good for 60 days after they are issued, and Jazdzewksi said they provide officers with a way to help motorists solve a problem, rather than simply citing them for a violation.
“Especially for people who aren’t as well off who can’t afford to get a headlight fixed, this is an awesome tool for them,” he said.
Jazdzewksi pointed out that law enforcement officers generally aren’t out to hassle people.
“We certainly want to have the public behind us and get along and serve them. I mean, that’s what we signed up for, and this is a good way to have positive interactions that might otherwise not be so positive,” he said.
MicroGrants launched the Lights On! program in the aftermath of the death of Philando Castile. Castile was pulled over by a police officer in Falcon Heights on July 6, 2016 for a broken taillight. He informed the officer that he had a permit to carry a gun. Then, while Castile was attempting to fish his wallet out of his pockets, the officer feared he was reaching for the weapon, ordered him to freeze and then shot him at close range.
In April of 2017 the Lights On! program got its start, working with 18 different police departments. Due to limited resources, MicroGrants didn’t really grow the program until July of 2018, when the Lights On! initiative received national attention, first in the Washington Post and then on the NBC Nightly News.
MicroGrants had been relying on crowdfunding to keep the program going, but with national exposure, additional supporters emerged, including the Chicago-based Joyce Foundation.
Since January of 2019 Lights On! has gone from working with 20 police departments to 57 law enforcement agencies today, McCloskey said.
He said the Minnesota State Patrol now is beginning to distribute Lights On! vouchers in the Twin Cities Metro Area but has plans to eventually roll it out statewide.
“Police departments are knocking down our door to join. And we’ve got police departments in probably 10 more states that are waiting for us to come onboard,” McCloskey said.
However, McCloskey remains wary of expanding the program beyond Minnesota until MicroGrants has all the proper pieces in place to successfully handle the added demands that would bring.