Truth or lives

Santa Maria police used fake news release to thwart murder -- UPDATED 12/1/16, 2:48 p.m.

The revelation that some internet users put out fake news during the election season has caused a lot of controversy, but can fake news ever serve a beneficial function?

In February, the Santa Maria Police Department (SMPD) issued a ruse press release that was subsequently reported by local news media, the Sun has learned. But instead of being accused of swaying presidential elections, this fake news apparently had a greater purpose: It was used to save lives.

According to court documents reviewed by the Sun, the SMPD issued a Feb. 12 press release that stated two men from Guadalupe were arrested on suspicion of identity fraud and were turned over to the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

The press release came several weeks before SMPD's announcement on the conclusion Operation Matador, the yearlong operation that led to the arrests of 17 alleged MS-13 gang members in Santa Maria and included help from several federal law enforcement agencies.

Police allege in the court documents that members of the local MS-13 gang planned to kill the two men, referred to in court documents as John Doe No. 1 and John Doe No. 2. Police had gleaned this information from telephone surveillance on several suspects in the case, according to the documents. The police acted by putting out the false press release, expecting local news media to report the fake story and the MS-13 gang members to stop pursuing the John Does.

SMPD Police Chief Ralph Martin confirmed with the Sun that the press release was indeed fake and that the two men were neither arrested, nor had they committed the crimes outlined in the press release. He also added that his department doesn't turn undocumented immigrants over to ICE.

Martin defended the decision to release the false press release, saying it very likely saved the two men's lives.

It was the right thing to do from the police department's perspective, though it may make news reporters feel a bit slighted, Cal Poly journalism ethics professor and attorney Bill Loving explained. 

"The police department runs the risk of losing that valuable conduit to the public through news media," Loving said. "They were simply being used."

Several local news organizations, including KSBY, KEYT, and the Santa Maria Times reported the information provided in the press release. They weren't aware that information they reported was fake until they were informed by the Sun recently. The Sun reached out to each outlet for comment.

Both KSBY and KEYT returned the Sun's request for comment. Both outlets support the SMPD's effort to protect citizens, but were nonetheless disturbed by the untruth.

Jim Lemon, KEYT's news director, said his reporters should've known something was amiss when the press release said the police turned the suspects over to ICE, even while knowing that wasn't the department's policy.

"We know this was an effort on the part of law enforcement to protect lives," Lemon wrote in an emailed statement. " Yet I fear by intentionally planting false information, those efforts may elicit too high a cost in credibility."

Kendra Martinez, news director for KSBY, found the fake press release more troubling.

"While we strongly support the police department's efforts to protect citizens in harm's way," Martinez wrote in an emailed statement, "we are concerned this type of deception can erode the basic trust of our residents and viewers."

This isn't the first time a law enforcement agency has purposefully issued false information to the media. In 2014, police in Ottawa, Canada used a fake press release to capture two people who were suspected of killing Jagtar Gill, according to the Ottawa Citizen.

Still, it's an uncommon practice. Martin told the Sun that in his 40 years of working in law enforcement this is the first instance he's experienced of using a ruse press release in this way, and it's the first time the SMPD has issued one.

"This is an incredible exception to what we normally do," Martin said. "But we thought this was the best form of protection."

It apparently worked. Martin said the two targeted individuals were successfully relocated. According to court documents, the suspects believed their targets had been arrested after seeing news reports along with pictures of the John Does on TV.

Following the release of the fake news and the subsequent news reports, Martin said detectives were able to acquire additional information from telephone surveillance and it ultimately led to the arrests of the suspects. Martin declined to provide any further detail about the two John Does or the deliberative process that led to the SMPD's decision to issue the ruse press release.

Loving said that as official sources of information, both police and the news media have an obligation to correct the fake news as soon as possible. He said that he finds no difference between what the SMPD did and the fake news used in the presidential election, except that police risk further eroding the fragile trust that lies between them and the public.

"How do we know what to tell the public that they can trust?" Loving told the Sun. "The good thing is that there was not collusion on the part of the media with the police."

The story was updated to include statements from KEYT and KSBY.

Staff Writer David Minsky can be reached at [email protected].

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