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California town known as a speed trap disbands police force

This news story was published on January 25, 2012.
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By Steve Chawkins, Los Angeles Times –

LOS ANGELES — Faced with crushing bills, a tiny Kern County town that became infamous for aggressive law enforcement has eliminated its police department.

“Maricopa just does not have the money to run a professional department,” said Eric Ziegler, a retired city manager who advises the City Council. “It wasn’t because of any particular feeling that there had been wrongdoing.”

Officials in the town of 1,200 are considering the sale of the department’s last remnants: four patrol vehicles — all bought used years ago — and two motorcycles.

The department had two full-time employees and about 20 uniformed volunteers — mostly veterans of other departments or younger people looking to land their first law enforcement jobs.

Over the last couple of years, the oil town 40 miles southwest of Bakersfield became known as a speed trap. Officers pulled drivers over for infractions such as cracked windshields and unlighted license plates.

In a scathing report last June, the Kern County grand jury accused police of targeting Latino motorists in hopes of seizing vehicles from unlicensed, undocumented immigrants.

The panel urged the 100-year-old city to pull the plug on its police department. A few days later, it urged Maricopa — which was swamped with debt — to pull the plug on itself and disincorporate.

Earlier this month, Maricopa decided to contract out its law enforcement responsibilities to the Kern County Sheriff’s Department. In addition to that money-saving move, the town made changes to its trash collection and sold some property.

“They took a giant step toward putting the city on the path to solvency,” Ziegler said.

The city’s two former police employees are both on disability leave, officials said.

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