SANTA MARIA, Calif. - We’ve received considerable feedback in the community to the story of how Santa Maria Police used a false news release earlier this year involving two men police say were targeted for death by rival gang members..
Reaction has triggered debate about how far law enforcement can or should go to protect the public and the ethics involved in the decision as well as the credibility and integrity of the news media in that process.
Santa Maria police Chief Ralph Martin said the false news release last February of two men in Guadalupe being arrested for identity theft and then turned over to ICE was a ruse to protect them from being killed by rival MS-13 gang members.
Chief Martin says social media communication between the suspects that was monitored by police revealed the false news report was convincing.
"We saved two lives", Chief Martin said Wednesday night, "the gang members that were targeting them backed off."
Its unclear if the suspects looking to kill the two men are part of 14 defendants now in custody in a large court case involving MS-13 gang members facing murder and other charges.
"It’s a crime for a member of the public to lie to the police but its not a crime for the police to lie to the public", says Santa Barbara College of Law professor Craig Smith, "this is an example of a need to have a strong community of journalists and media who can take the information they get from the police and other governmental authorities and to fact check it, verify it and confirm it so we’re just not left with one version of it."
Others in the legal community say the decision to issue false information to the media was a moral dilemma for the police department.
"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", says Santa Maria attorney Richard Brenneman, "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."
Others in the community we spoke with also had different opinions on the tactic which Chief Martin says was the first time SMPD issued a fake press release.
"i think they did their job", one man said Thursday night at the Walmart Shopping Center in Santa Maria, "sometimes you’re better off not letting the bad guys know what you’ve got and if you can lull them into a false sense of security so you can make the arrest and get them off the street then I have no problem with that."
"The police are just like anyone else, they can be culpable of a lot things", another man said, "just because they are sworn police officers doesn’t mean they’re going to be telling the truth."
Another man questioned the need to issue a fake news release to begin with and why police didn't just take the two men involved into protective custody without notifying the media.
The MS-13 case is back in court Friday for further arraignment with a trial expected sometime next year.