Viewpoints

Why fake news by police was such a bad move

Santa Maria Police Chief Ralph Martin addresses reporters about issuing a fake press release as part of a case against members of the MS-13 gang.
Santa Maria Police Chief Ralph Martin addresses reporters about issuing a fake press release as part of a case against members of the MS-13 gang. The Santa Maria Times

We’ve been getting sadly familiar lately with the concept of fake news. But we probably never expected it to come from the police.

And yet it did, in the central coastal city of Santa Maria. This might not be a famous city, but it’s not a backwater either; with a population of more than 100,000, it’s bigger than Santa Barbara.

The city’s biggest claim to fame recently, however, is its lying police chief, who purposely made up a story for the press and public about two alleged gang members. “Jose Santos Melendez, 22, and Jose Marino Melendez, 23, were both arrested on identity theft charges” and had been turned over to immigration authorities for deportation, the press release said. In fact, the two had been taken into protective custody because police had learned they were being targeted by a rival gang.

In fairness, Police Chief Ralph Martin had noble objectives.

Early this year, his department was investigating MS-13, a particularly dangerous criminal gang, and learned about the planned hit on the Melendez cousins. But placing the cousins under police protection wasn’t considered enough. Police were concerned that MS-13 might target their families if they thought the Melendez cousins were still around. They also might guess that they were being bugged. Thus the lie and, ultimately, the arrest of 17 gang members, according to Martin.

But he didn’t come clean immediately after the arrests. A reporter found out about the fake release when going through court documents months later. At that point, Martin admitted, “We used the news media.” He had been dealing with the deaths of nearly two dozen people, he said, and a lie seemed worth it.

Perhaps so, though I think Martin could have found other options. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that authorities should never, ever lie to the press. What if, say, a government official were to lie about whether two men had been arrested and in so doing prevented the pressing of several nuclear buttons and thereby saved the world? I’d say, lie to me.

In a way, a police chief lying is something like civil disobedience. Obeying the law is important. But there are times when an issue is of such great ethical and moral importance that nonviolent lawbreaking seems the only way. Consider Martin Luther King Jr. organizing marches and sit-ins despite court orders.

But civil disobedience also means taking the consequences for breaking the law. No sympathy for the protester who breaks the law and says, “You can’t arrest me! My beliefs are bigger than the law!”

Martin and other police will need to keep in mind that there are consequences when they decide that solving a case is more important than being truthful to the press and public. They and their word will be less trusted and more scrutinized for a long time to come. Martin’s decision doesn’t affect just him; it makes all police a little more suspect, especially since this kind of thing has happened in other jurisdictions.

The police chief said he never did this before. But given that he didn’t ’fess up until a reporter dug out the truth, how likely is that? That’s how everything he says will be viewed from now on. Maybe he doesn’t care about “using” the press, but he might care about the lack of trust in his statements in the future. See how that works, chief?

Karin Klein is a freelance journalist in Orange County who has covered education, science and food policy. She can be contacted at karinkleinmedia@gmail.com.

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