Some media outlets are enraged after discovering that they were duped by a fake press release issued by the Santa Maria Police Department back in February. But Police Chief Ralph Martin says the ruse saved lives and helped take down members of an international criminal organization; given the chance, he would do it all over again.
Here’s what happened:
While carrying out Operation Matador, a campaign against the deadly MS-13 gang, Santa Maria Police learned that two rival gang members were being targeted for murder by the group. They quickly took the two into protective custody, but “we knew they were going to continually look for them or their families,” Chief Martin said. That’s when they came up with the idea of the fake news release.
The statement said that the two targeted gang members had been arrested for identity fraud and turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Police then monitored the suspects as they searched unsuccessfully for the two, all the time unaware that they were actually in police custody. Surveillance audio revealed that the group eventually threw in the towel, assuming that the men had been deported.
“What we did was not illegal, it was not improper," Martin said. "It was a tactic that we used. We’ve never done it before. The suspects took the bait and this was more convincing evidence that they were targeting these two people.”
But not everyone is convinced the outcome was worth the potential damage to press integrity.
“We expect those who serve our community to do everything in their power to keep us safe, yet I fear by intentionally planting false information, those efforts may elicit too high a cost in credibility,” said Jim Lemon, news director for KEYT, KCOY and KKFX television channels, which were among those running the false story. “Truth is the foundation of journalism. In an era when ‘fake news’ has taken on a distinctive political tone, our work must always be about the truth.”