“Fake news” is getting plenty of attention these days. There’s a lot of it circulating out there, and in California, even the police are spreading some of it. Political groups blame opposing factions for creating fake news, distributing it through both mainstream and social media, and seeking to influence or change the votes and opinions of millions in the United States. Everyone seems to deplore the idea of fake news, and in many cases, it’s difficult to get a precise definition of what “fake” news actually is. In one case, however, California police are admitting that they created fake news, but they claim that they did it to save lives and take violent criminals off the street.
Law enforcement officers in Santa Maria, about 140 miles north of Los Angeles, issued a bogus press release in February 2016, and Police Chief Ralph Martin says two lives were saved as a result. However, several of the news organizations that reported the details in the press release as facts are now objecting to the deception by the police and to the loss of credibility they say they’ve suffered. Chief Martin, in response, says that he would not rule out using the same tactic again in the future. “It was a moral and ethical decision, and I stand by it.”
Chief Martin added that the murder rate in Santa Maria – normally only three or four homicides a year – has skyrocketed in recent months. News reporters learned about the fake press release only months afterwards, through court documents. The weekly Santa Maria Sun, along with KSBY-TV, reported that Jose Marino Melendez, 23, and Jose Santos Melendez, 22, had been arrested for identity theft and transferred to the custody of immigration officials. While that’s the story the press release told, “We never arrested them for that charge,” Chief Martin admits. “We never turned them over to ICE. They were always in our protective custody.”
WHAT REALLY HAPPENED IN SANTA MARIA?
What really happened is that investigators monitoring the notorious MS-13 gang took the cousins into protective custody upon learning that hit men were targeting the pair. The newspaper and the television station had no idea that the information they reported to the public was not true. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) was not involved with the phony press release. Virginia Kice, a regional communications director for ICE, told the Santa Maria Times, “We had nothing to do with this,” and “We did not corroborate that claim.”
KSBY-TV news director Kendra Martinez says that she was “deeply troubled” about law enforcement officials deceiving the news media and the public. Ms. Martinez stated, “While we strongly support the police department’s efforts to protect citizens in harm’s way, we are concerned this type of deception can erode the basic trust of our residents and viewers.” Santa Maria Times managing editor Marga Cooley said, “They used a public system paid for with public dollars to present false information to the public.”
DID SANTA MARIA POLICE VIOLATE THE LAW?
The incident in Santa Maria sheds some fresh light on the growing national debate about “fake” news, often spread by social media and sometimes through mainstream media, and its impact on public opinion. Jonathan Kotler, a professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, says the police department did nothing illegal in Santa Maria, but the officers have probably damaged their credibility with local media.
On the other hand, Kotler adds, when the police save lives, they usually win the support of the public. “If the press cries foul here, saying they were led astray by a false release, then you’ve got the press being angry about being misled. But on the other hand, the cops would say, ‘But look we saved lives.’ In that kind of PR battle, who do you think comes off looking better, the press or the police?”
California Polytechnic journalism ethics professor Bill Loving added that both the police and the news media have a responsibility to correct any fake news as swiftly as possible. It’s not the first time a police department has issued a fake news release to move an investigation forward. Police in Canada issued a press release with phony details about a 2014 murder investigation in Ottawa – just to see how their suspects would react to the information.
And many police departments have historically planned and conducted simple stings to nab people who have outstanding warrants – for instance, by informing them that they’ve won a lottery, a luxury car, or a vacation cruise that they need to claim. If you’re busted in that type of operation in the Seattle area, a Seattle criminal defense attorney can provide the legal help you’ll need. Still, the police officers who execute those rules typically use letters or phone calls – and not the news media – to lure the suspects who are their targets.
Louis Dekmar serves as the police chief in LaGrange, Georgia, and he’s also the current vice-president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police. Chief Dekmar told the Associated Press, “There’s a symbiotic relationship between the media and police. You need facts in order to accurately report to the public. We need the media to report facts accurately to get assistance from the public.”
WHAT CAN HAPPEN WHEN THE POLICE BREAK THE RULES?
In the state of Washington, the law imposes some commonsense limits on the behavior of police officers, but unfortunately, violations of suspects’ rights still happen far too frequently. Seattle criminal defense attorney Kevin Trombold says, “The amazing thing is that police have no obligation to tell the truth! There job is to respond to calls and write police reports. It’s only when they testify in court that they have to tell the truth. By then all they can remember is what they wrote in the report. If what they wrote was a lie back then, several hundred police reports ago, they often don’t remember the ‘truth’ independently.”
If you are charged with a crime in the Seattle area, get help at once from an experienced defense attorney who will safeguard your rights and advocate for justice on your behalf. If you believe that the police violated your rights before, during, or subsequent to your arrest, tell your attorney. When the police fail to act by the rules, in some cases the charge against a defendant can be dismissed.
Back in Santa Maria, Chief Martin says the false press release gave his investigators an additional three weeks to compile evidence that led to seventeen arrests on ten murder charges and a number of related charges. Meanwhile, the two Melendez cousins remained in protective custody. Chief Martin says of his critics, “I think if they were in my shoes they would have done the same thing.”