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Guest opinion

Cunningham: Learn from out-of-control conspiracy rumors about 'child sex camp'

It is right to be concerned when you hear a story about human trafficking and the exploitation of children. That's why some of you called my office when several outlets said that both of these things were happening in a homeless encampment off of I-19.

The only trouble is that the story turned out not to be true.

The police were called out to check on the camp on May 29 after getting contacted by the public. The police took this seriously and used a lot of department time and personnel to investigate, which is hard to do given their staffing issues.

Aside from evidence that homeless people had recently lived there, they found no evidence of the activities that were being alleged. This is from the official police release:

On May 29, 2018, the Tucson Police Department responded to the site of what appeared to be a one-time homeless encampment located on private property in the area of W. Valencia Rd. and S. I-19. Several individuals from a group of affiliated homeless veterans discovered the site and expressed concerns about possible criminal activity at that location. Tucson Police Department officers, detectives, and command staff conducted a thorough inspection of the site, spoke to the reporting parties, and collected evidence. Based on the department's investigation to this point, there is no indication this camp is being used for any type of criminal activity, including human trafficking. Yesterday, an unsubstantiated assertion was made that a body might be buried at the site. A cadaver dog was used to check the area with negative results.

The department has been in contact with the property owner who advised no one has permission to be on the property. The police department and property owners are working with City code enforcement officials to clear out the encampment and secure the property.

Later, after reports on the three television stations, the police sent a cadaver dog to the area. Once again, they found no evidence of what was being alleged.

I am not happy that this got perpetrated, at least initially, by local journalists who didn't seem to ask themselves if the story that was being presented to them made any sense. This wasn't a failure for our entire local media: Tim Steller of the Daily Star and Dylan Smith of the Tucson Sentinel have both debunked these stories and called out outlets that pushed them.

In the days since this has hit the media, the incident has morphed on national websites into an alleged conspiracy that involves groups as diverse as Mexican corporation CEMEX, controversial company NXIVM, the Clinton Foundation and even the Libyan Provisional Government. I wish I was making this up. If you want to look it up on the Internet you can, but life is really too short for you to waste your time.

There are so many things that disappoint me about how this has emerged. I understand how a reporter, just like a regular citizen, would get scared when they hear allegations about sex trafficking. I just wish a little more care was taken in evaluating the source that this information came from. I hope this is something they have learned from.

Another thing that disappoints me are the attacks on our police and on our mayor. It amazes me how many people in our community that support the police are at the same time alleging that they would be involved in a coverup of something like this. As for the mayor, there are a number of bizarre allegations out there that invoke his religion and his last name.

As citizens we have a responsibility to evaluate information and news items, their credibility and their veracity. In our modern instant information society, too many rumors have the tendency to spin out of control. When this happens the unintended consequences can be dire.

Paul Cunningham represents Ward 2 on the Tucson City Council.

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