When police issue citations to drivers for broken lights or turn signals on vehicles, that can cause an undue financial burden for some people, especially low-income residents.
On Tuesday, San Diego, Chula Vista and National City police officials announced what they view as a solution to that problem: a new program that will allow officers in San Diego and the two South County cities to hand out repair vouchers instead of citations.
One police reform advocate said the intent behind the new program is "long overdue."
The effort, expected to kick off around April 1, is part of a program called Lights On!, which includes more than 140 law enforcement agencies in 17 states. The three local police departments are the first in California to sign on.
The vouchers will cover up to $250 for repair costs at participating auto shops, which will complete the work and send invoices to Lights On! Drivers will be on the hook for costs that exceed $250.
Officials said they believe the vouchers will result in positive encounters between officers and drivers they stop because of burned out lights on their vehicles. They acknowledged that citations can be costly for community members struggling to make ends meet.
"Our collective goal is to make our roads safer without negatively impacting those who can't afford to fix a light or may not even realize a light is out," San Diego police Assistant Chief Rudy Tai said during a news conference at his department's downtown headquarters.
Chula Vista police Chief Roxana Kennedy and National City police Chief Jose Tellez echoed Tai's comments.
"We came and entered this profession to serve, to help people, to make a difference," Kennedy said. "And yes, sometimes that means we have to write a ticket. ... But in all situations, our officers appreciate having options."
She added that the program will allow officers to connect with community members "in a way that perhaps they're not used to."
Donations from the San Diego Padres Foundation and Scripps Health will fund the program for about three years, depending on the number of vouchers redeemed and the cost of the repairs, officials said. The Padres Foundation will grant the program $30,000 and Scripps Health will donate $56,400; MicroGrants, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit that runs the program, will match those funds.
The vouchers are not expected to prevent officers from making traffic stops as usual, officials said.
In some cases, officers might investigate and enforce other suspected crimes beyond the light-related violations. Sometimes officers make pretext stops — instances when officers pull over drivers for minor traffic or equipment violations only to investigate other crimes. Such stops have been criticized by community members who say they disproportionately target people of color.
Malcolme Muttaqee, a police reform advocate and organizer with the San Diego-based nonprofit Pillars of the Community, said the program seems like an attempt by police to rectify "long-term damage" caused by citations and build stronger relationships with community members.
"It's great that there's a realization that some people can't afford to pay for broken taillights," Muttaqee said. "I think that's long overdue."
However, he questioned whether the vouchers would go to community members who need them the most. He also raised concerns about officers' ability to engage in pretext stops.
While Muttaqee said vouchers are a great alternative to citations, the better option is for officers not to pull over drivers for minor violations like broken taillights, he said. He and other police reform advocates in San Diego want a ban on pretext stops and traffic stops for vehicle equipment violations, including broken lights — two ideas a coalition of groups proposed as part of a package called Preventing Overpolicing Through Equitable Community Treatment, or PrOTECT.
A legal review of the proposals is underway at City Hall.
Proponents say the reforms would limit traffic stops, which disproportionately impact communities of color and sometimes lead to negative encounters between officers and community members, even violence. Opponents say officers in many cases take guns and drugs off the streets during traffic stops.
Officials said Tuesday that the vouchers will not lead to a higher rate of traffic stops.
"This is not an opportunity for officers to have a tool to make more traffic stops," Kennedy said. "That's not what the purpose of this program is."
LightsOn! was launched in Minneapolis in 2016 after the killing of Philando Castile, a 32-year-old man who was fatally shot by a police officer during a traffic stop in Falcon Heights, a suburb of Saint Paul, Minnesota.
Lights On! Vice President Sherman Patterson said more than 80,000 vouchers have been redeemed across all cities that have participated since the start of the program.
"Think how many lives that's changed," he said.
According to San Diego police data, officers made at least 24,500 vehicle stops for light-related violations, such as broken taillights, between 2019 and 2022. The stops accounted for about 4 percent of all stops in the four-year period.
In many cases, officers did not issue citations, according to an analysis of data. And over the last four years, the number of citations decreased. Officers issued 821 citations for light violations last year — a 55.7 percent decrease from 2019, when they issued 1,852 citations.
Most of the citations in the four-year period were issued for burned-out brake lights and burned-out third brake lights.
In Chula Vista and National City, officers also issued fewer citations in recent years, with most tickets written for broken brake lights and broken third brake lights between 2019 and last year.
Staff writer Lyndsay Winkley contributed to this report.
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