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California cops issue fake news release to trick MS13

December 4, 2016  |  Posted by: Francesca Falzarano
California cops issue fake news release to trick MS13

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Authorities investigating an infamous gang in central California issued a fake news release, which the chief of a local police department credited with saving two men by deceiving gang members who wanted them dead.

However, the trick was criticized by news organizations who reported it as legitimate.

Ralph Martin, the Santa Maria Police Chief, defended the unusual tactic earlier this week when news of the plot came to fruition, saying he had never something like in his 43-year career, but he would not rule out doing it again.

“It was a moral and ethical decision, and I stand by it,” the police chief 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.”

The fake news release was originally published in February, but was discovered in court records and reported this week by the Santa Maria Sun.

The newspaper, along with local television stations, did not know that the information in the fake news release was misleading when they reported that two men, 22-year-old Jose Santos Melendez and 23-year-old Jose Marino Melendez, were apprehended for identity theft and were handed over to immigration officials.

In reality, investigators monitoring the deadly MS-13 gang had raced to the home of the two cousins in Guadalupe and placed them into protective custody after discovering that hit men were on their way to the house.

Kendra Martinez, the news director at KSBY-TV, stated that she was “deeply troubled” that authorities lied to both the public and the press.

“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,” she declared.

The operation comes to light as the media tried to set the record straight as truth and fiction are obscure as an increase of “fake news” is being spread on social media.

KSBY.com | San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara Area News

A professor at the USC Annenberg school of journalism, Jonathan Kotler, noted that there was nothing unlawful about what law enforcement officials did, but it could, however, raise doubts regarding the department’s credibility in the future.

“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,” he added. “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?”

Providing misleading information to the press to further law enforcement goals is rare, but it has been done before. Officials in Ottawa, Canada were scrutinized for releasing false information about evidence linked to a murder case in 2014 so they could see how the suspects responded.

Police routinely use stratagems to capture suspects. Sting operations attract deadbeat parents, traffic-fine scofflaws, and people wanted for various outstanding warrants to collect rewards that they think they’ve won.

“They used a public system paid for with public dollars to present false information to the public,” Marga Cooley said, who is the managing editor of the Santa Maria Times.

Louis Dekmar, the VP of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, said he’s only heard strategies like this three times in his forty years on the job. He would only use such deception in the most unusual cases when there are no other options and only after considering long-term outcomes.

“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 stated. “There’s a symbiotic relationship between the media and police. You need facts to accurately report to the public. We need the media to report facts accurately to get assistance from the public.”

Martin added that the decision was not made lightly as the homicide rate has skyrocketed in the city of about 110,000 people, that typically sees only three to four murders a year.

Police learned, through wiretaps and surveillance, that the Melendez men, who are members of a rival gang and lost another cousin to violence seven months prior, were about to be executed.

Officials decided that they would reveal their long-running Operation Matador if they made apprehensions, so they took the men into protective custody before the MS-13 members came to the home. Believing that the hitmen could return and hurt relatives if they thought the men were in protective custody, police manufactured the press release about their arrests.

After MS-13 gang members had come back to the home the following day, law enforcement officers listened in on a phone conversation with them discussing the news report that the two had been taken into custody for identity theft.

Martin stated that it provided investigators with another three weeks to collect evidence that led to the apprehensions of 17 gang members on ten murder charges, along with plots to kill eight others, including the cousins.

He added that he had taken some heat from the media, but has also received over two dozen calls in support from residents in the area. “I think if they were in my shoes they would have done the same thing,” he said.

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