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Grand jury issues scathing report on Maricopa’s Police Department

For a two-man operation, the Police Department in tiny Maricopa has developed an outsize reputation.

The chief, the sergeant and the 20 volunteers who help them have been accused of running a costly speed trap, sapping motorists’ desire for a return visit to the oil field town 40 miles southwest of Bakersfield. One local businessman even put up billboard-size signs outside his gas station warning travelers to watch themselves because the department “wants your cars and your money.”

Now a Kern County grand jury has agreed — and gone a step further. In a scathing report, it urged Maricopa, population 1,200, to eliminate a Police Department it describes as so incompetent that it can’t keep track of the weapons in its custody or the citations issued by its officers.

Police Chief Derek Merritt did not return a phone call from The Times. Interim City Administrator Lauri Robison declined to comment on specific allegations, saying the city was drafting a response.

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“We do take this report seriously,” she said.

In cataloging the department’s shortcomings, the grand jury noted that it had lost at least 100 citations — a lapse, the panel said, that “raises questions about its professional integrity.” In addition, it said, the department failed to report a child abuse case to county and state agencies, as required by law, and failed to discover in a background check that a reserve applicant was wanted on a felony.

The grand jury made no recommendation about what Maricopa should do if it closes the department. From 1998 to 2006, the city contracted with the Kern County Sheriff’s Department.

In a separate report, the grand jury said that the Maricopa officers routinely stop drivers for minor violations such as cracked windshields and unlit rear plates. Drivers unable to pay fines and $150 impound fees see their cars hauled off to an impound yard and ultimately sold by the city — which keeps 25% of the proceeds, the report said.

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This arrangement — which never received formal approval from the City Council — “contained unusual benefits for the city of Maricopa,” the grand jury said.

Critics have accused the city of exploiting farmworkers who were passing through.

The group of drivers who lost their vehicles was “overwhelmingly Hispanic,” the grand jury said, echoing charges of profiling, denied by the chief, that some residents previously made before a county human rights commission.

Bob Archibald, who owns A & A Express — a gas station, sandwich shop and convenience store —said he wasn’t surprised by the grand jury’s conclusions.

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“Their entire goal was to harvest cars,” he said of the police personnel. “It was just like a farmer picking peaches.”

Archibald is the merchant who put up signs cautioning drivers that Maricopa is risky territory. He says aggressive policing has caused his recession-strained business to decline an additional 25%. Still, he was surprised the grand jury suggesting shuttering the department once and for all.

“It rocked me back,” he said. “I had no idea that our little town had so many issues with the Police Department.”

steve.chawkins@latimes.com


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