Nothing can ruin your day faster than flashing lights in the rear-view mirror. The thought of a ticket can make the heart race as the officer approaches your window. The news that the ticket plus the expense of a repair for a burned-out headlight or malfunctioning turn signal can create hardship and hard feelings.
In neighborhoods where the cost is a significant burden, those moments of interaction between a driver who needs a hand up and a police officer can be so important in building a sense of community and helpfulness instead of resentment and distrust.
The Jacksonville Sheriff's Office wants to be a positive and proactive partner in their community. In seeking ways to build that sense of community, they've partnered with the Jaguars in an effort to introduce the Lights On! Initiative in Jacksonville.
Lights On! is a community driven program which offers repair vouchers instead of traffic tickets. The program was founded after the needless death of Philando Castile, in Minnesota, in 2016 as a solution to a small problem but one that can have a big impact.
"The Lights On! Program is a way to build relationships between police departments and the communities they serve," explained Don Samuels, CEO and Founder of Lights On!. "Instead of punishing drivers for broken lights, we can fix the mechanical issue and mitigate what often becomes a downward spiral for community members in need. We are giving officers a new tool on their duty belt that creates a positive interaction, especially needed in these tense times."
Statistically, traffic stops are among the most dangerous encounters that a police officer can have. They get out of their cars and have to be prepared to expect the unexpected. Even if it's nothing dangerous, simply a single mother on her way to work, having to write a ticket that is going to cost her and then a repair that is going to cost her more is an unpleasant experience for the officer involved.
"This voucher puts a positive spin on it," offered Assistant Police Chief Paul Restivo of the JSO Community Engagement Division. "An officer can come back and instead of a ticket where they're going to lose money and on top of that have the expense of the repair, they're getting a way to pay to have the vehicle fixed. Everywhere this program has been implemented it's turned into a positive for the person and the police officer to have that kind of interaction."
The program is funded in part by a grant from Lights On! But Restivo needed to raise funds locally for the other half, and so a phone call to a friend in the Jaguars organization turned a quick result.
"I pitched them the idea and it made sense," said Restivo. "Literally, the first call I made I had a sponsor. The Jags try to make a positive impact in the community on a daily basis just like we do and for them it just seemed like the right thing to do."
Whitney Meyer joined the Jaguars front office in October to lead the team's efforts in the Community. In her role as the Chief Community Impact Officer this was too good of an opportunity to build on the Jaguars Inspire Change initiative which promotes equality by creating a greater, more positive human connection between police officers and the communities they serve. The residual effect of the Lights On! program made an instant impression on Meyer who wants long lasting and farther reaching programs to help build a stronger community.
"This program allows police officers and citizens to engage in a positive way," said Meyer who recalled being pulled over for a burned-out headlight herself some years ago. "We know a traffic stop usually comes with some anxiety and it can be costly, but in this case they're leaving with a voucher and going to a local business to get a repair and it won't cost them anything. Plus, there is now a chance to reflect on the positive encounter with family and friends and probably the shop owner and the word will get out which is good for everyone involved. In a very simple way this effort will build and grow and bring about meaningful and tangible change and that's what we're about"
There are currently nine local auto repair businesses engaged with the Lights On! initiative in Jacksonville and JSO is actively seeking more. Restivo hopes the program solves problems for people and officers and wants drivers to know that officers are on the road with vouchers today and that they're genuinely concerned with public safety and they're here to help.
"We are part of the community the same as them. This is really a way to connect," he said. "We like to help people, that's why most of us got into this job. That's what I love about this program, it checks both boxes. It makes cars safer for the road and it gives an officer a chance to show he's a human being just like they are, and he wants to be able to help this person when they need it the most and not make their lives more difficult."