The revelation that some internet users put out fake news during the election season has caused a lot of controversy, but according to the Santa Maria Police Department (SMPD), fake news can sometimes serve a beneficial function.
The SMPD issued a ruse press release earlier this year that was subsequently reported by local news media as fact. This fake news apparently had a greater purpose than swaying election outcomes: It was used to save lives.
According to court documents, the SMPD issued a Feb. 12 press release stating that two men from Guadalupe were arrested on suspicion of identity fraud and were turned over to Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
The press release came several weeks before SMPD’s announcement on the conclusion of Operation Matador, a yearlong operation netting the arrests of 17 alleged MS-13 gang members in Santa Maria that 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 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 distribute the false press release, saying it very likely saved the two men’s lives.
Several local news organizations, including KSBY, KEYT, and the Santa Maria Times, reported the information provided in the press release, and they weren’t aware the information in it was false until the Sun (New Times’ sister paper) reached out to them.
Jim Lemon, KEYT’s news director, said his reporters should’ve known something was amiss after reading in the press release that the police turned the suspects over to ICE, 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.”
Martin said that in his 40 years of working in law enforcement, this is his first instance 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. Additional information from telephone surveillance ultimately led to the arrests of the suspects.