Thursday, June 2, 2011

Maricopa leaders mum as grand jury rips police department

BY JAMES BURGER, Californian staff writer | Thursday, Jun 02 2011 09:32 AM

Last Updated Thursday, Jun 02 2011 04:06 PM

ern County grand jurors, in their second scathing report on the small town in two days, called Thursday for the Maricopa City Council to abolish the current incarnation of its police department and ponder another way to provide law enforcement.

The Maricopa Police Department has, the report states, violated California government, penal and vehicle codes by failing to account for hundreds of citations written by the department.

It says Maricopa police could not account for weapons in their possession, did not maintain a log of their enforcement activity, failed to find a felony Kern County warrant against a job applicant when researching the background of the reserve officer candidate and failed to report a child abuse case to state and county agencies as required by law.

And, the Kern County grand jury’s Cities and Joint Powers Committee noted, Maricopa Police Chief Derek Merritt was improperly appointed to his post by a past city administrator without the legally required approval of the Maricopa City Council.

“The MPD does not meet the standards expected of a professional police department,” the report states.

Kern County District Attorney Lisa Green said one of her investigators assisted jurors in their Maricopa inquiry. But, she said, Maricopa police are not currently the subject of a formal criminal investigation by her office.

“I am unaware of any criminal prosecution being contemplated,” Green said.

Thursday’s report follows a Wednesday report that said Maricopa police exceeded their powers and turned the small southwestern Kern County community into a speed trap designed to capture traffic fees and impound penalties from travelers and farmworkers driving between the Central Valley and the Cuyama Valley to the west.

Calls to Merritt and interim City Administrator Lauri Robison were not returned Thursday. The city staffer who answered the phone at City Hall said Merritt was very busy dealing with the fallout from the report and might not be able to respond to questions.

Maricopa City Councilman John Crump said he had not read the grand jury reports and did not have a comment on the accusations and recommendations in them.

Other city council members were not available for comment or did not return calls from The Californian.

On Wednesday, in the earlier report, the grand jury recommended the Maricopa City Council terminate an invalid impound towing contract established with Randy’s Towing by Merritt and recently resigned Maricopa City Administrator Dan Ayala.

The contract had never been approved by the Maricopa City Council as required by law, according to the grand jury.

It also charged that the Maricopa Police Department was using aggressive traffic enforcement tactics against Hispanic drivers, based on minor traffic violations, to generate funding for the city through the impound contract with Randy’s Towing.

Maricopa’s impound fee of $150 was the highest in Kern County, the grand jury reported. And, under the contract with Randy’s, the city collected 25 percent of all impound fees.

The person who answered a call to Randy’s Towing said the owner would not be responding to questions about the Maricopa situation.

Bob Archibald, who owns the Shell gas station in Maricopa, said he was “cautiously optimistic” that things in his community would change for the better because of the grand jury reports.

Archibald was critical of the traffic tactics of Maricopa police. He posted signs at his business that called those tactics “out of control” and said the department “Wants your Car and Your Money.”

He said drivers were avoiding the community and that was cutting deeply into his business.

His business is “still severely impacted” by the lack of traffic through the city, Archibald said Thursday, but “I am hopeful for a positive future for our beloved little town other than this traffic-for-money thing.”

Archibald said he was shocked that the grand jury recommended eliminating the police department altogether and is a little nervous about moving his city’s law enforcement powers into outside hands — despite his disagreement with the department over traffic policies.

“I’m very pro-police. I need protection for my property, but I need it for my employees and my customers as well,” Archibald said. “We need to stand up and dust ourselves off” and get a community-based police operation that is focused on taking care of the people of Maricopa.

Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood said the Sheriff’s Department has provided law enforcement services to Maricopa in the past and could do it again if the Maricopa City Council requests an agreement.

But lack of money would limit the kind of services Maricopa would receive.

Currently, the grand jury reported, Maricopa has two paid staff and 24 volunteer officers who work for the city in exchange for experience and are paid little or nothing.

“I’m not sure Maricopa has the money to staff a substation the way they would want it to be staffed,” Youngblood said. “It appears that the city does not have the tax revenue required to be a city.”

If sheriff’s deputies provided law enforcement to Maricopa, Youngblood said, “We would probably work it out of the Taft substation.”

Deputies would not be stationed in the small town at all times, Youngblood said.

No comments: