Dozens of sheriff's deputies, U.S. marshals and other law enforcement officers tracked suspected killer Aaron Bassler through rugged terrain outside Fort Bragg for more than five weeks last fall.
By the time Bassler was killed by a sharpshooter from the Sacramento County Sheriff's Department, expenses for the round-the-clock operation had topped $600,000 —a significant sum for any public agency and a crushing burden for a department as small as the Mendocino County Sheriff's Office, which has an annual budget of less than $11 million.
With two victims and the threat of more violence, shutting down the search to save money wasn't an option. This was an expense that the department simply had to shoulder.
Five months later, another enormously expensive law enforcement operation is unfolding in rural Northern California. Authorities in Calaveras and San Joaquin counties are searching for the remains of 15, perhaps 20 victims of two men dubbed the "Speed Freak Killers." At least one of the victims has been missing since 1985.
So far, the search has unearthed more than 1,000 bones and fragments, with costs already topping $90,000. Factoring in DNA testing, authorities say costs are likely to rise as high as $500,000.
State legislators are sponsoring bills to reimburse some of the local costs from each of these cases.
A bill by Assemblywoman Cathleen Gagliani would require state taxpayers to pick up the bill in the Speed Freak Killers case. "Certainly no one could have anticipated this happening," the Livingston Democrat told the Sacramento Bee last week.
Assemblyman Wes Chesbro is carrying a similar bill on behalf of Mendocino County, but the Arcata Democrat wisely takes the issue a step further. Chesbro's bill would establish a system for future manhunts that require mutual aid.
"This bill will assist counties, especially rural counties, that have limited resources but still have a need to respond to significant public safety events," Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman said.
A system of sharing costs has long been in place for fighting wildfires, but it hasn't previously extended to extraordinary law enforcement situations. "I easily could compare a wildfire to what the Aaron Bassler operation was," Allman told Staff Writer Martin Espinoza.
For many years, the state has offered crime labs and other investigative services to law enforcement agencies too small to maintain such services. Building on that model makes more sense than pursuing separate legislation to address every unexpected situation.
The main priority, as Chesbro said in announcing his bill, "should always be public safety not budget concerns."
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