When St. Paul Police Chief Axel Henry sees red and blue lights in his rearview mirror, he said Saturday, even he gets nervous.
Was he speeding? Did he run through a red light? Is one of his taillights out? Henry said he asks himself such questions when police pull him over, and officials believe many St. Paul residents do the same. Saturday's Project Self Stop event aimed to help such residents by offering them information, tips and resources that could prevent them from being pulled over in the first place.
Temperatures dropped and snow fell on the lot of 1680 Como Av. where the St. Paul Police Department held the event. Despite the cold, drivers pulled into the lot with questions about broken headlights, car titles and how Minnesota's recreational marijuana law could affect them during a traffic stop.
Residents with broken headlights or taillights received vouchers of up to $250 to fix them. Steering wheel locks were available for Kia and Hyundai owners, and gun locks were provided to people asking how to safely and legally carry a firearm during traffic stops.
Henry said the goal is to improve relations between the community and police, and to prevent traffic stops from escalating into tragedy.
"If we can, [we want to] help people understand why we make traffic stops, how we can behave and how they can behave to best make sure that that traffic stop goes the way we want it to go," Henry said. The department began prioritizing dangerous traffic violations over minor ones, like broken taillights, in 2021."
Thousands of traffic stops analyzed by the national organization Justice Innovation Lab support what Henry's saying.
The analysis, released as part of the Justice Innovation Lab's 2023 report, found a positive effect on crime and community relations when officers in Roseville, Maplewood, St. Anthony and St. Paul pulled fewer people over for minor traffic violations. Sherman Patterson said that is part of the mission behind Lights On, the program that partnered with police to offer the vouchers presented Saturday.
Lights On launched after the 2016 death of Philando Castile, who was pulled over dozens of times before his fatal stop in Falcon Heights. Patterson said Lights On has expanded to police departments and agencies across the country since then, and has redeemed more than 11,000 vouchers.
"We all know that a blown headlight, taillight or turn signal can cause damage to the car, a person, or even could cause death," Patterson said, adding that many cannot afford such fixes. "It's not the be-all solution, but it's part of the solution and it's positive. It's a win-win-win for everybody."
Saturday's event was the first of its kind, but Henry said churches and other organizations have asked about hosting a self-stop event. The department hopes to coordinate more events like it sometime next year.