Police officers in a Central California town took part in a scheme in which cars belonging to poor Hispanic people were impounded, towed and later sold or given away for free to some officers when the car owners couldn't pay the fees, authorities said Tuesday.
Four officers - including the recently retired police chief and the acting chief - have been arrested, and two other officers were also arrested Tuesday on unrelated charges, Monterey County District Attorney Dean Flippo said.
"There has been a significant breakdown in the internal leadership of the King City Police Department," Flippo said. "It also appears to me that some officers have dishonoured their badge."
The six officers account for more than a third of the 17-member force in King City, an agricultural town of 13,000 people about 240 kilometres southeast of San Francisco.
Early Tuesday morning, teams from the Monterey County sheriff's office, the FBI, the Salinas Police Department and the district attorney's bureau of investigation arrested the officers after a months-long investigation. It began as a response to complaints by residents of corruption and criminal acts within the department dating back at least 3½ years, Flippo said.
The probe revealed that more than 200 vehicles had been impounded and that 87 per cent had been taken in by the same towing company.
In some cases, authorities said, officers simply kept the cars for their own use.
The four officers tied to the alleged car theft scheme have each been charged with bribery, accepting a bribe or embezzlement.
The operator of the towing company who is also the brother of the acting chief has also been arrested in the case.
KSBW-TV reported that all seven of those arrested were bailed out of jail within hours. The officers have been placed on paid administrative leave, the station said.
The front office of the King City police station house was closed Tuesday afternoon. King City Manager Michael Powers told The Associated Press that Monterey County sheriffs and officers from the nearby cities of Gonzales and Soledad have volunteered to help the city with police duties now that so many of its officers have been taken off duty.
"Obviously, people are in shock, and so is the city staff," Powers said. "But at the same time, we can't tolerate corruption in the police department."
Tuesday evening in King City was typically quiet, with the historic main street's bakeries, markets, taquerias and restaurants mostly empty.
Hector and Laura Vasquez set down a heavy sofa they were carrying in the showroom of their Dor's Furniture store to chat about the arrests.
Speaking in Spanish, Laura Vasquez said it did not seem right that the officers were bailed out so quickly after her husband described what had happened.
"They're supposed to be keeping us safe, but they're the ones who are breaking the law," she said.
Husband Hector Vasquez said there's frequent talk in the US of how corrupt Mexican law enforcement agents are.
"So that's a little awkward," he said.