Way back in February when Donald Trump was still a primary sideshow and "fake news" was still something that baby boomers consumed via Fox News, the police department of Santa Maria, California (pop. 103,410) created some fake news. A February 12th press release stated that two men from Guadalupe, a neighboring city, had been arrested and turned over to ICE. The local press ran the story, and according to the police department, it saved the lives of the two men and lead to the arrest of 17 gang members.
The Santa Maria Sun, which obtained court records this week about the incident, reported on the story:
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.
The Santa Maria Police Chief, Ralph Martin, is standing by the move. "It was a moral and ethical decision, and I stand by it," he told the AP on Friday. "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." He said the department had never done something like this before, but told KSBY—one of the local outlets that ran the false story—that he would do it again if needed.
Police using the press as unwitting lackeys during investigations is nothing new. Earlier this year, there was a case of the Ottawa, Canada police department pulling something very similar. In 2007, the FBI created a fake Associated Press news story that was accompanied with spyware, enabling them to arrest their suspect. (The latter case resulted in a lawsuit from the AP and the nonprofit Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press against the FBI.) Earlier this year, I reported for the Chicago Reader about the Chicago Police Department's practice of allowing the city's main police union to distribute often-inaccurate information from the scenes of fatal police shootings.
The police department's argument here—that it pulled the maneuver to "save lives"—doesn't necessarily carry much water here, because the department also admits that the two men were in police protective custody. What seems more likely is that the fake story was planted to assist police in "Operation Matador," an anti-gang initiative that resulted in the 17 gang members' arrests. Naturally, Chief Martin declined to answer questions form the Sun about the "deliberative process."
Sam Stecklow is the Weekend Editor for Fusion.