After trying out a vouchers-instead-of-tickets approach the past two years, Minneapolis police are making it a policy. As of Feb. 1, officers won’t issue citations for busted headlights or turn signals. Instead, they’ll have the option to give drivers vouchers to cover repairs.
That’s a good way to address multiple citywide challenges: improving police-community relations, reducing racial disparities between groups stopped by cops, and making streets safer because of fewer vehicle equipment problems.
“Fixing minor issues such as a broken brake light can go a long way toward breaking the cycle of poverty — individuals who ignore a fix-it ticket are at risk of having their license suspended,” MPD said in a news release.
Under the new policy, officers can give drivers a voucher from the Lights On! program — financed by the nonprofit MicroGrants. The vouchers can be redeemed at participating auto shops.
“Having dependable transportation is pivotal to moving out of poverty,” former Minneapolis City Council member and MicroGrants CEO Don Samuels wrote in a post on the organization’s website. “Service vouchers are a simple solution that give people the opportunity to maintain steady transportation so they’re able to stay employed, stay afloat and stay connected to their community.”
Critics of the policy say it’s too lenient, that it lets people off the hook to take care of their vehicles or that it somehow gives people of color special treatment. But the program applies to any motorist regardless of race.
Drivers with outstanding warrants or those who have committed some other criminal act can still be arrested after being pulled over. And if vehicle equipment violations result in a crash or “harm to another,’’ citations or arrests may occur.
When Minneapolis and other Twin Cities communities announced their participation in Lights On! two years ago, the Star Tribune Editorial Board expressed support for the program. Cities that tried the approach then included Edina, Columbia Heights, Brooklyn Center, Brooklyn Park and Roseville. Now the number of participating police agencies has grown to 36.
The new Minneapolis policy covers an expanded list of equipment and requires officers to give out vouchers in nearly all cases.
The program takes a proactive — not punitive — approach to resolving minor car equipment failures. It gets the safety problems resolved and give cops an opportunity to have positive, helpful interactions when they stop motorists.
That’s even more important at time when police-community interactions are under more scrutiny than ever for racial bias. A 2018 Hennepin County Public Defender’s Office report, for example, found that more than half of drivers stopped citywide for equipment violations were African-American, even though they make up only about a fifth of the city’s population.
Minneapolis has already experienced the benefit of the policy change. MPD statistics show that vehicle equipment violation stops decreased by 27% last year from the previous year. Reducing those stops gives officers more time to concentrate on calls about more serious incidents, including violent crime.
The creative public-private partnership that led to the MPD policy change helps motorists and can lead to improved police-community relations — without spending additional taxpayer funds.