A California police department’s use of a fake news release in an anti-gang operation has drawn warnings that the tactic undermines police and threatens trust with the public, the Guardian reports. Santa Maria police chief Ralph Martin said the tactic was necessary to protect the lives of two men from a gang that wanted to kill them. The fictional news release was found in court documents by the Santa Maria Times, nearly 10 months after the paper and television stations had reported the story as fact. Police had said officers had detained two cousins on charges of identity theft and had given the men to immigration authorities. The police lied. For weeks, the department had been running a surveillance operation on a gang called MS-13. Listening to MS-13 conversations on wiretaps, the police learned that the cousins, members of a rival gang, were targeted for murders. Detectives took the cousins into protective custody, removing them from their home where the men and their family might have been targeted by the hitmen.
As a cover, the police wrote a fake news release to deceive the MS-13 assassins. When the would-be killers returned to look for the cousins, police eavesdropped on a phone conversation and heard the hitmen talking about local news reports of the arrests. Martin said that the investigation, Operation Matador, was able to continue thanks to the ruse, and that police eventually arrested 17 gang members for 10 murders. The police chief said he would not rule out fabricating another story to protect lives and investigations. Press experts warned that Martin’s argument of a greater good was outweighed by the damage the fake report did. The Santa Maria police may have threatened their ability to do their work in a practical sense, said Gregg Leslie of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. “This immediately and almost permanently undermines the credibility of an entire police department,” he said. “Not only in the eyes of the public, but even the gang members won’t believe them in the future.”