Joetopia

Santa Maria police, take note: Blue lies matter

Santa Maria Police Chief Ralph Martin briefs reporters in June about Operation Matador, which involved the arrest of 15 people for conspiracy to commit murder and other charges.
Santa Maria Police Chief Ralph Martin briefs reporters in June about Operation Matador, which involved the arrest of 15 people for conspiracy to commit murder and other charges. Noozhawk.com

As if it weren’t bad enough that we’ve got a plague of fake news purveyors chewing on our democracy like locusts, now comes word that the Santa Maria Police Department contributed to spreading misinformation when it sent out a bogus news release as part of a sensitive operation in February.

The release came as the department was in the midst of a crackdown following a spate of killings that claimed 21 lives from December 2014 to January 2016, according to Noozhawk.

It announced the arrest of two Guadalupe men, Jose Marino Melendez, 23, and Jose Santos Melendez, 22, claiming they were suspected of attempted identify fraud and had been turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

In reality, the men apparently were being targeted for murder by the MS-13 gang and were taken into custody for their own safety. Police announced the “arrest” to keep gang members from growing suspicious at the men’s sudden disappearance.

“We were involved in an incredibly sensitive and confidential investigation,” Chief Ralph Martin told Noozhawk on Thursday. “We know that they were going to be killed.”

The bogus news was picked up by KCOY, KKFX, KSBY and the Santa Maria Times and covered as fact. (It was not published by The Tribune or Noozhawk.)

Three weeks later, police completed the operation by arresting 15 people on suspicion of conspiracy to commit murder.

But no word of the fake release was issued, even after the investigation came to a head. It wasn’t until the Santa Maria Sun discovered the real story in court documents that the truth came out.

“This was an incredible exception,” Martin said, defending the decision. “We could not lose the case and all of the time we put into it if (the suspects) thought for just a moment that we snatched them off the street to protect them.”

I get the seriousness of this case and the fact that lives were on the line, but there must be a better way for law enforcement to conduct their investigations than by drawing the news media and public into their elaborate charade.

The main goal of this fake news was to give gang members the impression that their two targets were out of reach, without causing any ruckus and jeopardizing the investigation.

I would ask why they couldn’t do this in any number of other ways, especially in this day and age. All they really needed to do was get the guys off the street and then spread a story about their whereabouts. Make a show of the arrest and then let the grapevine do its work.

What else is Facebook for these days, if not for disseminating viral mendacity?

Why couldn’t the subjects’ family and other informants have shared the word on social media, the way all other self-respecting fake news purveyors do?

We know Twitter, Snapchat and other sketchy websites are better conduits for this kind of information than a legacy newspaper or TV station.

Yet, the Santa Maria Police Department chose to implicate the media in a ruse, which now puts the department’s credibility in question for almost anything going forward.

However noble the cause, it’s a fact now that Santa Maria police may lie to advance their own goals. Knowing that, the public, including area media, is forced to take everything they say with somewhere between a grain and a heaping teaspoon of salt.

And it doesn’t end there. What’s to stop other departments from employing the same strategy?

Memo to Sheriff Ian Parkinson and the police chiefs in San Luis Obispo County: Don’t get any ideas from this, OK?

Ultimately, our public agencies and the free press rely on trust. We trust the information they give us. They trust us to report it fairly and accurately. Sometimes we disagree about reporting news, and we may have a conversation about that. Many times they can’t tell us close to what we’d like to know. But through it all, there’s always still a level of faith and respect.

When one side violates that understanding, however, the system breaks down and the public’s confidence erodes.

Now more than ever, that is not the kind of working relationship we should encourage.

Law enforcement has several tools it can use in carrying out its investigative work.

Outright lying to our citizenry and manipulating the media shouldn’t be one of them.

Joe Tarica is senior editor for The Tribune. 805-781-7911, jtarica@thetribunenews.com, @joetarica

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