Counterterrorism Center Monitored Replies to DPS Director’s Kaepernick Tweet

The Arizona Counter Terrorism Information Center monitored responses to a controversial tweet about Colin Kaepernick posted last year by Arizona Department of Public Safety Director Frank Milstead, Phoenix New Times has learned.

The center, run by a joint law enforcement task force, examined Twitter replies to Milstead’s message for signs that it might inspire a protest or violence directed at DPS. A criminal intelligence analyst took screenshots of the replies. The images were then shared with other DPS employees via email.

In the tweet on September 5, 2018, Milstead criticized former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick by unfavorably comparing him to a 24-year-old state trooper, Tyler Edenhofer, who was shot and killed during a struggle with a suspect on Interstate 10 in July.

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Milstead’s tweet substituted Edenhofer’s image for Kaepernick using the text of a Nike ad campaign featuring Kaepernick, which had been announced days earlier.

Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during the national anthem in protest of police shootings of African-Americans and racial discrimination inspired other players to protest in similar ways last fall. “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick told NFL Media in an August 2016 interview after he remained seated during the anthem.

The former San Fransisco 49ers quarterback and the anthem protests became a flashpoint in the football league and national politics.

“I won’t mention your name, I refuse,” Milstead wrote in his tweet, apparently referring to Kaepernick. “If you’re in search of those who paid the Ultimate Sacrifice I would look to the men and women who wear a uniform and are killed/murdered keeping us safe & protecting those who can’t protect themselves.”

Emails obtained by New Times through a public records request show employees of the Arizona Counter Terrorism Information Center checked for “indications of protests, disruptions or violence directed at DPS” in the aftermath of Milstead’s tweet.

The DPS did not respond to questions as to the extent of the social media monitoring or who assigned the counterterrorism center to investigate the potential for a protest in the first place.

Since 2004, the state counterterrorism center has operated as a joint intelligence and investigative unit  encompassing DPS, the Arizona Department of the Homeland Security, the FBI, and other agencies, according to its website.

Records show the center’s analysts took several pages of screenshots of replies sent by Twitter users to the DPS director. Many of the responses criticized Milstead’s tweet as inappropriate and wrong-headed, though some praised his statement.

“I’m amazed you find it appropriate to comment on a public ad campaign in your official capacity,” one Twitter user wrote in response to Milstead. “Is the DPS publicly hostile to those who may support him then?” The Counter Terrorism Center recorded the reply in a screenshot along with others.

The screenshots included the display names and Twitter handles of the social media users.

Ron Lackey, a criminal analyst supervisor in the strategic intelligence unit within the counterterrorism center, emailed various DPS employees on September 7, 2018, with an update on the social-media monitoring.

Lackey speculated that Milstead’s tweet “could possibly generate a spillover effect, prompting additional people to demonstrate/counter-demonstrate during the President’s pending rally on 9/19.”

Although he got the date wrong, Lackey was most likely referring to President Trump’s campaign rally in Mesa on October 19, 2018.

Even as the counterterrorism center examined the responses to Milstead, there was no indication that people planned to protest in response to the controversial tweet.

“So far, the most extreme response has come from a U.S. Congressional candidate in New York, but no one has suggested any protests,” Lackey wrote.

“We will continue to monitor the chatter concerning both events,” Lackey wrote. He said he assigned another analyst “to continue monitoring responses over the weekend.”

The congressional candidate identified by the counterterrorism center was Tom Hillgardner, an unsuccessful Green Party nominee for the seat in New York’s 6th District.

Hillgardner replied to Milstead on Twitter, “Cash your paycheck and can it. Quit your job if you don’t feel appreciated. Stop fantasizing that you are keeping anyone safe. Ask the families of all the dead unarmed people your minions have killed.”

One day after sent his initial email, Lackey updated his DPS colleagues. He included four more pages containing screenshots of tweet responses to Milstead that had been compiled by a criminal intelligence analyst.

“While it appears the initial responses have mostly been negative – and some have called for his resignation or claim his comments further divide law enforcement from the public – we have not found any calls/plans for protests against DPS, so far,” Lackey wrote on September 8.

Robert Schulte, a Scottsdale psychiatrist, was among the individuals whose reply was recorded. In his tweet to Milstead on September 6, Schulte wrote, “This is Milstead demeaning a troopers [sic] life … stepping on the grief of the his [sic] family … to make some idiotic political point. Stick to your job, buddy.”

Reached by phone on Monday and told that his Twitter reply had been captured by the counterterrorism center, Schulte said he would need time to process what happened. “I’m going to have to wait to have a response. That’s stunning. I thought I lived in a free country,” Schulte said.

“I’m going to go about my business as if nothing happened. I can’t be scared off by something like this,” Schulte added.