A burned-out headlight or taillight might cost about $40 to fix, but for those already facing financial hardship, that amount can lead to a downward spiral.
The Rochester Police Department is looking to help citizens avoid the spiral with a new initiative called “Lights On!” The program is a part of the Minneapolis-based nonprofit MicroGrants and gives officers vouchers to hand out to motorists that cover the costs of replacing a headlight, taillight or turn signal.
“The program involves an opportunity for law enforcement to give something back to the motoring public,” Rochester Police Chief Jim Franklin said Thursday morning. “Oftentimes, officers pull people over for traffic violations and equipment violations and we have limited resources and tools or options for the officers.”
The coupon, or voucher, is written in English, Spanish and Somali and includes a website where motorists can go to find area auto shops that accept the vouchers.
In Rochester, Rochester Motor Cars has stepped up to make repairs for those who come in with vouchers. Since its inception in April 2017, between 800 and 900 vouchers have been used, said Mike McCloskey, chief operating officer for MicroGrants. The vouchers cover the cost of the fix, whether that be a simple bulb replacement, which McCloskey said averages around $43, or some minor wiring repair.
“We repair 99 percent of them,” McCloskey said. “We want this to work for everybody.”
The voucher program is already in use in a number of metropolitan police departments, but Rochester is the first department in Greater Minnesota to join. The program has also been replicated in Iowa City, Charleston, S.C., and Wichita, Kan. MicroGrants is also working on a three-year plan to take the Lights On! program nationwide.
More than two years ago, MicroGrants board members started to look for a way to help build police-community relationships. They came up with the voucher initiative, according to Sherman Patterson, program director for Lights On! The program also came in response to incidents occurring in Minnesota and across the country such as the death of Philando Castille, who was shot and killed by police following a traffic stop for a broken taillight.
“So often, you have low-income people who will be stopped for a blown light, a headlight, taillight,” Patterson said. “They are making choices: Do I pay this or rent or food? When they get that ticket, it builds and builds.”
When someone is handed a voucher, Sherman said, not only does it help relieve anxiety and lift a financial burden, it helps start a conversation — something Patterson learned firsthand after his own wife was offered a voucher by police after she was stopped for a burned out headlight during a snowstorm.
“The great thing about it was that she said her anxiety went down when he came back with the voucher and they had a conversation,” Patterson said. “That conversation started that relationship, and that is what we are looking at, the relationship — building a better police-community relationship but also serving those who are in need.”
Handing out the vouchers is at the officer’s discretion, but all of the Rochester Police Department’s approximately 100 patrol members will have the ability to hand them out. Franklin credits Sgt. Paul Gronholz with finding the local providers and getting the program running.
“It’s a great example highlighting that public-private partnership and it’s reflective of a community that we serve,” Franklin said. “It’s reflective of a community of compassion, willing to come together in a creative initiative and problem-solving for the greater good.”
The voucher program is funded by donations. More information about the program itself, as well as how to donate, can be found at www.lightsonus.org.