KSBY, an NBC affiliate in San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara, ran a story earlier this year with the headline “Identity fraud suspects from Guadalupe turned over to ICE officials.”
As is standard procedure when reporting on the actions of law enforcement, the story quoted a news release from the Santa Maria police. It read in part, “Jose Santos Melendez, 22, and Jose Marino Melendez, 23, were both arrested on identity theft charges.”
The story, though, was fake. The cousins were not arrested, and Immigration Customs Enforcement wasn’t even aware it supposedly had custody of the two.
That was not the fault of KSBY, whose reporters were operating as most do. It was the fault of the Santa Maria Police Department, which purposefully released false information to the news media as part of its investigation.
On Friday, Santa Maria Police Chief Ralph Martin defended the decision to release a fake news release for the first time in his 43-year career.
“It was a moral and ethical decision, and I stand by it,” Martin told the Associated Press. “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.”
In February of this year, the department was investigating local members of the MS-13 international gang, which The Washington Post reported, is “considered one of the most dangerous groups linked to murders, prostitution and drug trafficking.”
Via wiretaps, authorities learned the gang planned to to kill the Melendez cousins at their home in nearby Guadalupe.
Quickly, police put the cousins in protective custody, but wanted to ensure the gang wouldn’t then go after their families. In addition, the police didn’t want the gang members to know they were bugged, which could expose their long-running investigation of MS-13, called Operation Matador, the AP reported.
That operation eventually led to the arrest of 17 gang members, according to Martin.
“We knew they were going to continually look for them or their families, so we made the decision,” Martin told the Santa Maria Times. “I gave the final authority to put out a false press release that stated that these two people were arrested for identity fraud. That they were arrested and ultimately turned over to ICE. None of that was true.”
Added Martin, “We had a moral and legal obligation to go in and save those people before they got shot and killed.”
Local media outlets published the story as the police told it — that the Melendez cousins had been arrested. And it remained that way for 10 months, until the Santa Maria Sun’s David Minsky discovered and reported on the fake release last week, forcing the department to defend the decision.
When speaking with the paper about the tactic, Martin didn’t mince his words.
“We used the news media,” he said.
But others displayed discomfort with the method.
While it’s not illegal, it isn’t used often. LaGrange, Ga., Police Chief Louis Dekmar — who also serves as the vice president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police — told the AP he’s only heard of such a tactic being used three or four times in his decades-long career.
The FBI, in fact, used a similar tactic in 2007 when it created a fake Associated Press news story to infiltrate the computer of 15-year-old in Washington who had emailed bomb threats to administrators and staff members at his high school with a trojan-horse-style program. As described in a report by the Office of the Inspector General, “An FBI undercover agent posed as an editor for the Associated Press (AP) and attempted to contact the individual through email. During subsequent online communications, the undercover agent sent the individual links to a fake news article and photographs that had the computer program concealed within them.”
While it may work, Dekmar thinks it can be problematic.
“Any time you enter into a ruse that involves the media, it creates a real distrust between the police and the folks we rely on,” Dekmar said. “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.”
Others were more forceful with their opinions, such as Kelly McBride, the vice president of academic programs at the Poynter Institute.
“I’m sure they had other options,” McBride told WTHR. “This is atrocious because this is essentially your government lying to you.”
Some, though, felt it was a necessary evil.
“The police chief in this particular case, the Santa Maria Police Department, if they deliberately told a falsehood or false story to save somebody’s life that would seem to be good,” Santa Maria attorney Richard Brenneman told KEYT. “That’s on the side of good rather than evil, to tell a lie to save a life is a no-brainer, that is not something that is morally wrong.”
As for ICE, Virginia Kice, its western regional communications director, made clear that the organization was not involved — not even aware — of the fake news release.
“We had nothing to do with this. I want to be sure that your readers understand that,” Kice told the Santa Maria Times. “I understand the dilemma that the Police Department was facing; two people’s lives were in danger. As a former reporter and now a public affairs person of 30 years standing, I was very concerned about corroborating information that we knew to be false. We did not corroborate that claim.”
Finally, KSBY, one outlet that ran the fake news story, released the following statement.
KSBY News is deeply troubled by the Santa Maria Police Department’s use of a fake press release to mislead the local news media and our community. 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.
To be clear, KSBY News had no knowledge the information contained in the press release was false until we learned of the deception through an investigation launched by the Santa Maria Sun. KSBY News will run a correction in light of this new, false information.
Despite the criticism, Martin said he would use the tactic in the future.
“Don’t plan to do it again, however, if the circumstances came up and there was something similar, I would definitely do it again,” he said.