Last December, the Sun revealed that the Santa Maria Police Department issued a fake press release in February 2016 that was reported as fact by numerous local news organizations (not including the Sun). But despite the press release’s fraudulence, the department has yet to remove the post from its Nixle account—an internet-based notification service used nationally by law enforcement.
Posting the fake press release appears to have violated the terms of service for Nixle, which prohibits the publishing of false information. The Santa Maria Police Department uses the service to push press releases to the public and media agencies.
The terms of service are common for many web-based services, especially for email or social networking sites like Facebook where users must agree to certain rules upon creating an account. Such rules are generally legally binding.
But Santa Maria Police Chief Ralph Martin wasn’t aware what the terms of service were or that they existed when initially asked by the Sun. At first, Martin said he’d more than likely take the press release down, but then he changed his mind.
“I don’t have any plans to take it down,” Martin said, adding that he has yet to be notified by Nixle. “If it violates their policy then it’s Nixle’s policy to contact us.”
The release originally put Martin at odds with the local press, which depends on public agencies to provide factual information. Facing criticism for the deception, Martin defended it, telling the Associated Press that it was “a moral and ethical decision” to use a fake press release that he said ultimately prevented MS-13 gang members from killing two young men. Issuing false information to the media is a tactic Martin said he’s only used once in his more than 40 years in law enforcement.
Twice in Nixle’s terms of service it’s mentioned that publishing of false information isn’t allowed.
Under section (k) of the “conduct” portion of the agreement, it states that a user cannot “transmit fraudulent, deceptive, or misleading communications to any user for any purpose other than personal use.”
Then for a second time, several paragraphs later under (iii), “prohibited communications,” a user can’t “impersonate others or provide any kind of false information.”
A portion of the terms mentions “disciplinary action,” although it doesn’t clearly state what the consequences are for violations.
The Sun attempted to contact Nixle several times by phone and email but received no response as of press time.
The terms of service also state that once a user becomes aware of unauthorized use of an account, they must notify Nixle immediately.
Leaving the false press release in place is problematic for Dave Maass, an investigative researcher for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based nonprofit dedicated to defending digital rights.
“As law enforcement, you should be following the rules,” Maass told the Sun. “Not even correcting it or removing it undermines the whole goal of the Nixle system.”
Additionally, Maass said that the press release changes the liability of Nixle as a whole. If the Santa Maria Police Department is allowed to do it, Maass questioned, then what prevents other police departments from doing the same thing?
Nixle is a San Francisco-based company used by thousands of law enforcement agencies, local governments, and other emergency responders nationally to send incident notifications to the public. Anyone can sign up for a free account.
As of 2014, Nixle had more than 2 million subscribers receiving notifications from at least 7,100 different agencies in the U.S. The Santa Maria Police Department began using Nixle in July 2015.
The department’s fake press release was used shortly before the conclusion of Operation Matador, a yearlong investigation by the department that resulted in the arrests of 17 suspected MS-13 gang members in March 2016. Shortly before the operation ended, the department learned through wiretaps that the gang members intended to kill the two men, who were relatives of members of a rival gang.
The press release stated the men were arrested on suspicion of identify fraud and handed over to federal immigration enforcement officials. It also contains the names of the two men targeted by the suspected MS-13 members. The fake press release is still available on the department’s Nixle account for anyone to see.
Although Martin wouldn’t talk about the would-be victims for this story, he informed the Sun last December that they were taken into protective custody and were, at that time, still in danger of being harmed.
Martin said removing the post would create a “bigger problem” for him, and make it look like his department “was removing something.” Martin said that taking the post down would serve no purpose, since the post’s original purpose of deceiving MS-13 was met.
“If you want Nixle to be this useful service that people understand and believe, you need to treat it with respect, and I don’t think that’s what’s happened,” Maass said. “A terms of service is an agreement and the city needs to abide by their agreements and not treat them as meaningless.”
Staff Writer David Minsky can be reached at [email protected].