Instead of ticketing for violations such as a broken taillight, Washington County Sheriff’s Office deputies are now able to give vouchers for repairs.

Sheriff Dan Starry announced last week his office has joined the Minneapolis-based program Lights On, which supplies vouchers to about 75 participating law enforcement agencies statewide. Deputies can now offer drivers a voucher for up to $250 of repairs at a local auto shop, including Lucky Dog Garage in Lakeland, TGK Automotive in Hugo and Mastertech Auto in Newport.

"We want to make it so that they don't have to travel a long way," Starry said. "We wanted to make sure it was accessible as possible."

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The majority of participating agencies joined Lights On in 2019, said Don Samuels, CEO of MicroGrants, which funds the program. That year, Lights On received a major grant and a donation that has allowed them to expand statewide. The organization is now planning to branch out nationally, he said.

Samuels, whose service on the Minneapolis City Council from 2003-2014 included chairing the public safety committee, said he and MicroGrants board members developed the idea for Lights On in response to the 2016 police-shooting of Philando Castile.

“There was a kind of appall hanging over the community as we contemplated the senselessness of it, the tragedy of it,” he said. “Low-income people get stopped disproportionately by cops because they have older cars — their lights go out, mechanical issues happen, and they get kind of a poverty tax from all the things that can go wrong.”

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MicroGrants launched Lights On in spring 2017. Nearly every police department Samuels invited to join said yes, he said.

“There’s so many police departments that are feeling the pinch of this bad reputation,” Samuels said. “They are all looking for a better way to relate to communities. This was just like the perfect answer for so many communities. They all jumped on board.”

Since then, more than 1,300 drivers have used a voucher, he said.

“If we can provide a service and an opportunity like this, certainly we are going to do it,” Starry said. “I think it’s a win-win for everyone.”