California police use fake news release in gang plot that experts say erodes trust

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Press experts and ethicists warned that using a fake news release to delude MS-1 3 assassins undermined the polices credibility and could lead to public distrust

A California police departments employ of a fake news release in an anti-gang operation has described warnings that the tactic undermines police and threatens trust with the public.

Santa Maria police chief Ralph Martin defended the tactic last week, saying it was necessary to protect the well-being of two men from a gang that wanted to kill them.

The fictional news release was found in tribunal documents last week by the Santa Maria Times, virtually 10 months after the local paper and television stations had reported the story as fact. Police had said policemen had imprisoned two cousins, 22 -year-old Jose Santos Melendez and 23 -year-old Jose Marino Melendez, on charges of identity theft and had given the men to immigration authorities.

The police had lied. For weeks, the department had been running a surveillance operation on a gang called MS-1 3, with active wiretaps. Listening to MS-1 3 conversations, the police became aware that the Melendez cousins, members of a rival gang, were targeted for assassinations. Detectives took the cousins into protective custody, removing them from their home where the men and their family might have been targeted by the hitmen.

As a cover-up, the police wrote a fake news release to deceive the MS-1 3 assassins. When the would-be murderers returned to look for the cousins, police eavesdropped on a phone conversation and heard the hitmen talking about local news reports of the arrests.

Martin said that the investigation, called Operation Matador, was able to continue thanks to the ruse, and that police eventually apprehended 17 gang members on charges related to 10 murders. The police chief told the Associated Press he would not rule in fabricating another story to protect lives and investigations.

It was a moral and ethical decision, and I stand by it, Martin said. I am keenly aware and sensitive to the community and the media. I also had 21 bodies lying in the city in the last 15 months.

But press experts and ethicists warned that Martins argument of a greater good was outweighed by the damage the fake report did. The Santa Maria police may have threatened their standing and their ability to do their work in a practical sense, said Greg Leslie, the legal defense director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

This immediately and virtually permanently undermines the credibility of an entire police department, he said. Not merely in the eyes of the public, but even the gang members wont believe them in the future.

Its worrying, he added. Whos going to believe a police department statement about the situation of women anyone in custody or about whos been arrested for international crimes? A reporter might have to say, The police say they have someone in custody, but they have been known to falsify info in the past.

Police officers sometimes pose as reporters to get information from sources, but rarely do law enforcement operations hinge on fabricated reports. In 2014 the FBI was sharply blamed, though it did not breaking the law, for creating a fake Associated Press narrative to investigate a teenager who had made bomb threats.

More often, law enforcement officers will post fake awards and seduces to bait suspects with outstanding warrants into public places, where policemen can then arrest them. But those traps do not usually dupe the press and stimulate reporters into unwitting accomplices, said Jeffrey Seglin, an ethicist at the Harvard Kennedy School.

People have done stuff like this before to get criminals to show up to police departments, lures to get people to come in for free gamble tickets, he said. But I dont know anything thats run this far.

Thats trying to get the criminals to believe something. This is different: it misinforms the press and the public. It erodes trust in everything, right?

Seglin said that although the police had was just thinking about ethics they didnt just make a knee-jerk, gut reaction he did not guess the decision was ethical.

Kelly McBride, a vice-president for the Poynter Institute, said the fake press release undermines trust in the police department and sends a message to the officers in this department that falsifying datum is OK if you have a good reason. Thats antithetical to the principles of law enforcement.

These are people who often have to testify that they are telling the truth, she said. The police, she added, achieved an important good for two people, and sacrificed “the worlds largest” good for the citizens they serve.

Martin was not immediately available for an interview but said last week that he was unshaken by the criticism. I think if they were in my shoes they would have done the same thing, he said.

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