America is, you might be aware, expressing a groundswell of disgust against police brutality following the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor—a challenging scenario many local law enforcement departments have responded to with an increased escalation of said brutality. Considering the sheer number of videos circulating on social media of clear-cut violence incited solely by police, it’s hard to call this strategy anything but the most spectacular and horrifying own goal in history.
Beating the shit out of peaceful protesters and pushing old men onto the sidewalk aren’t the only public relations tools in cops’ (considerable, highly militarized) arsenal, however. Police in Austin, Texas posted the following tweet yesterday—the implicit message being that some silent majority of the city’s residents stood behind their actions.
Those actions have, in recent weeks, included the killing of Michael Ramos (42), and the firing of beanbag rounds into the heads of Brad Levi Ayala (16) and Justin Howell (20), the both of whom suffered brain damage. Protesters who attempted to get Howell medical attention after the incident were also shot at by police, video shows.
Yes, America is a land of contrasts, and surely some Austinites are very much behind their boys and girls in blue. But this tweet brought out a number of amateur sleuths on Twitter who noticed a few unusual details in the photo.
For one, these envelopes did not have postage or addresses. Sure, it’s possible and even likely that all were hand-delivered, but how does the Austin Police Department explain the identical handwriting on nearly all of these envelopes?
The conclusion many drew was that the cops had written the cards themselves and staged an outpouring of thanks during a moment of unprecedented unpopularity for law enforcement. Naturally, we reached out to Austin’s public information office:
“Many of you have inquired about the cards that were posted on our social media pages,” Austin PD wrote to Gizmodo. “The cards were from several community members to include kindergartners and Austin families, who wanted to show support for APD officers. Two people, who organized delivering the cards in person, addressed the envelopes with a “Thank you,” so our officers would open the notes to receive encouragement during these difficult times. That is why the front of the envelopes appear to have the same handwriting.” All the letters were, APD stated, delivered at the same time this past Thursday.
The inclusion of “kindergarteners” is suspect. Texas schools were ordered to close for the remainder of the 2020 academic year by state governor Greg Abbott in mid-April. There are no kindergarten classrooms open in Texas, or most of the country for that matter.
In a phone call after Gizmodo requested clarification, a public information officer declined to identify the two people who delivered these letters. The officer claimed that APD are not aware of what community group (if any) was responsible for organizing the letter-writing campaign, and that the information concerning kindergarteners was provided by the two individuals who delivered the letters. “We don’t know what school or what kindergarteners” the officer admitted, later walking the claim back to state that calling some of the writers “kindergarten-aged” would be more accurate.
In the same call in which the PIO admitted “we don’t know who they are,” they also staunchly denied that the letter-writers are themselves officers or relatives of officers. APD deny that the purpose of posting these photos was in any way related to recent events.
Did Austin PD write themselves thank-you cards? We probably won’t ever know conclusively, and for my money, it’s just as likely a genuine show of support from a very small number of blue lives matter types. Regardless of the origin of these cards, it speaks volumes that whoever runs APD’s social media outreach thought this was a positive moment worth highlighting rather than an incredibly tone-deaf reaction to a moment in history when the necessity of police as an institution is on referendum.
Clarified to reflect that both Ayala and Howell suffered brain damage