It is an article of faith in California governance circles that local trumps state. It’s supposedly better to have decisions made and services delivered at the local level. Local officials should be trusted over the folks sent from Sacramento.
The manhunt for the cop-turned-killer Christopher Dorner flipped this narrative, in an illustrative way.
How? The Dorner story saw local law enforcement fail again and again. The original failure was the LAPD’s: hiring and training a person who, it now seems clear from accounts, never should have been in law enforcement. (Weirdly, media scrutiny has instead focused on LAPD’s decision to terminate Dorner, a decision that appears to have been vindicated by subsequent events).
When Dorner’s killing began, law enforcement in Irvine, the location of the first two victims, was stumped and described the slayings as a whodunit. Dorner’s own Internet manifesto was the first sign that it was no such thing –that Dorner was hunting cops.
That realization, and a sense of falling behind, brought more mistakes, and panic. In Torrance, two different cars – neither of which matched the description of Dorner’s car – were shot up, one by LAPD cops, the other by Torrance cops. None of the victims of those police shootings remotely resembled Dorner.
Meanwhile, Dorner eluded local police, even after he shot officers in Riverside. He fled to the Big Bear area, where a manhunt by various agencies, many of them local, turned up nothing for days. It would turn out that Dorner was holed up in a condo within sight of the law enforcement command post. But he was not found.
So who found Dorner? Alert state officials, of course!
California Department of Fish and Game wardens alertly spotted him in a car and gave chase, beginning a series of events (including the tragic shooting of another law enforcement officer) that led to his holding up in a cabin, and eventually committing suicide.
It’s unfair to leap from Dorner to conclusions, but the Dorner story is a reminder of a truth we don’t often mention. California’s governance problems are routinely blamed on the state, but many of the problems – of overspending, corruption, and incompetence – are much more glaring at the local level. Indeed, when you talk about spending and budgeting, California is an outlier primarily because of how much local governments spend on the salaries and benefits of law enforcement.
State officials are much maligned, but the state government is much more efficient, and its employees less generously paid, than the locals. Perhaps state workers deserve a bit more credit, particularly after recent events. After all, it’s entirely possible that without those state game wardens, Dorner might still be at large.