N.Y. PD replaces tickets with vouchers to help re-engage with community during tough times

"Do I put groceries on the table? Or do I spend $175 to get the equipment violation fixed?" Saugerties Police Chief Joseph Sinagra said describing what citizens sometimes face

By Diane Pineiro-Zucker
Daily Freeman

SAUGERTIES, N.Y. — By launching and promoting its "Lights On!" program, Saugerties police are helping community members and are improving their relationships with the people they serve, Police Chief Joseph Sinagra said recently.

With Lights On! in place, Saugerties police are empowered to use their discretion and, when the situation warrants it, to issue vouchers for up to $250 in repairs rather than issuing tickets that require drivers to fix safety violations on their own. With a voucher, drivers can go to Sawyer Motors or Steyer's Hudson Valley Auto and have safety violations like broken or dysfunctional tail lights, license plate lights and headlamps fixed at no cost.

Both shops will cover as much as $50 in additional expenses if the repair cost exceeds $250 because, "They want to make sure that the vehicles that are out there on the roadways are operating in a safe fashion," Sinagra said.

According to a press release, Bob Siracusano, owner of Sawyer Motors, said that when Sinagra approached him about being involved, "he jumped at the opportunity."

"We are a close-knit community in Saugerties," Siracusano said. "We take care of each other. We lift each other up. That's why we're happy to participate."

Steyer's Stephanie Steyer said, "We are a five-generation family business in Saugerties so we understand families and the struggles they face. Anything we can do to help our neighbors, we are more than willing."

Saugerties was the first law enforcement agency in New York state to offer the program, according to the New York State Association of Police Chiefs. In a press release, Sinagra said, "Now we can provide an opportunity ... and we've stopped that vicious circle of financially impacting people when they're down on their luck," explaining that the program both "cuts struggling motorists a break and improves relationships between the public and police."

As of April 13, Sinagra said Saugerties police had issued a total of 135 vouchers. From June to December 2021, the department issued 33 vouchers. From June to December 2022, that number had jumped to 77 and, from January through April 13 of this year, 25 vouchers had been issued, Sinagra said.

Lights On! is free to police departments and voucher recipients. The program's initial funding was made possible by a First Responders Children's Foundation grant. The nationwide program was founded after the 2016 fatal shooting of Philando Castile by a Minnesota police officer following a traffic stop.

Lights On! in Saugerties first got underway in 2019 and was paused during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic when traffic enforcement took a back seat in the interest of public safety, Sinagra said.

Then, in May 2020, just as things began to normalize a bit and Saugerties police resumed stopping ticketing drivers, George Floyd was murdered by a Minneapolis police officer during an arrest. Floyd's death and the nationwide outrage that followed heightened the need for better police-community relations, the chief said.

Lights On! picked up where it had left off in June 2021.

"It was a great segue because the pandemic financially hurt a lot of people. We were also coming out of the George Floyd incident and the BLM (Black Lives Matter) movement and (Lights On!) really gave our office the opportunity to reengage the public in a positive way," Sinagra said.

Floyd's highly publicized and controversial death had created a dilemma for police, the chief said.

"So how do you tell cops that don't want to be the next CNN story or the next officer on the front page of the paper because of a bad encounter with the public?," Sinagra asked. How do we reengage them in a positive way? And how do we have positive encounters with the public?"

Lights On! was "one way," he said.

Saugerties officers have discretionary powers when it comes to issuing a Lights On! voucher. "So, what we really are looking for is people that were really down on their luck. They had these minor traffic infractions and equipment violations and they had to make a decision, 'Do I buy diapers? Do I put groceries on the table? Or do I spend $175 to get the equipment violation fixed?'" Sinagra said.

The chief said he has received some "very positive" thank you emails since Lights On! began. "So, it's really helped to establish that positive rapport ... and it also makes our officers feel good. And now they can go out there and they're doing their job."

Officers are not necessarily giving vouchers to every driver, but need to engage the driver and determine their level of need, Sinagra said. "By talking with the person, ... I'll find that a lot of times their license is suspended because they didn't pay those fines. And the reason they didn't pay the fines is because they had to make those choices. Do I provide for my family or do I pay the fines that I owe the court?"

To learn more, visit lightsonus.org or https://crimewatch.net/us/ny/ulster/saugerties-pd.

(c)2023 Daily Freeman, Kingston, N.Y.
Visit Daily Freeman, Kingston, N.Y. at https://www.dailyfreeman.com/
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Recommended for you

Copyright © 2023 Police1. All rights reserved.