The last week has been a tumultuous one in cities across the country, as protesters took to the streets to demand justice for George Floyd and an end to police brutality. In Denver, there have been both peaceful demonstrations and tense clashes between protesters and police; the city is now under a 9 p.m. curfew that runs through June 4.
And in the middle of the action is Murphy Robinson, a former cop who was named executive director of the Denver Department of Public Safety, which oversees the city's police, fire and sheriff's departments, on May 20, just eight days before the protests began. We interviewed Robinson just days into his new job, before the protests began in Denver.
On June 1, we caught up with Robinson again, for an update on those demonstrations and how Denver is handling them.
Westword: What are your overall thoughts on the protests so far?
Murphy Robinson: I think there are two thoughts. One is about the protests in Denver, the other about the riots in Denver. Because they’re two very distinct things.
The protests in Denver, I think, have gone extremely well. A lot of people have been voicing their opinions, which I agree with. There’s no one more angry about what happened to George Floyd than myself. I’m a black man in America that’s been discriminated against by police. Even when I was a police officer, albeit in a different state.
However, that doesn’t leave any room for violence. Because violence is not the answer. When it comes to the organized protests that have gone on, I think it’s wonderful. I endorse them. But when it switches to violence at around 8 or 8:30 p.m. in the evening, I have no tolerance for that.
I am always concerned about the citizens who are out there that mean no ill intention, but also concerned about the police officers on our line who are forced into a position to do their jobs and act appropriately when it comes to keeping the city safe.
I’m distraught about it. I’m quite frankly upset.
What are your thoughts on the police’s handling of the protests and the riots?
The police have been put in a very hard position in both. They are in charge of making sure the community and areas where protests are happening stay safe, while making sure constitutional rights of citizens are being upheld.
That is a difficult position to be in, especially when previous demonstrations have ended in violence.
There’s always something to learn. Always something to learn and do better at as we are navigating the complex issues in regard to protests and riots.
However, our Denver Police Department, in its totality, has done a tremendous job navigating these waters and really trying to keep the amount of force appropriate for the amount of violence that we are seeing.
I went on the front line alone on May 31, and I personally witnessed the amount of violence that was being enacted on not only our city properties, but also our citizens and police officers alike.
We confiscated weapons. I got hit by a large rock myself. Our vehicle that we were in got damaged by rocks. Bricks were thrown at us. We found bats with nails. Rifles and handguns were confiscated. There were homemade munitions and homemade explosives that we saw. This was all just May 31.
Have any police been disciplined or investigated for possible misconduct in relation to the way that they’ve handled themselves at protests and riots?
We’ve got a number of inquiries or asks to look into some actions of police officers. Now, keep in mind, we have a ton of partners out working with us. We are responsible for looking at Denver police conduct, not that of other cities.
Every complaint is investigated to its fullest capacity, and I will hold officers accountable if it's found they acted outside of the use-of-force policy.
Journalists are getting hit with pepper balls despite identifying themselves both orally and visually as press. How is your department working to make sure this doesn’t happen?
As you can imagine, on the line it’s very difficult to distinguish a member of the press versus a person that is actively participating in the violent behavior if they’re inside the group that is doing the violent behavior.
I can guarantee that the majority of our police officers are working to make sure that the press, when identified, aren't hit. If there’s something that has happened where that’s the case, we will identify that incorrect action.
I am also working on guidance for our press to make sure they know how we react when it comes to things like them being on the front line.
You have to know if you’re in the middle of a riot, in the middle of people committing acts of violence, you are likely to experience pepper balls or something that stops behavior of violent individuals.
I hate to say that’s the case, but there’s no way to pick out one person of the press and exclude them from a large group such as that. If there’s misconduct, we will investigate and hold people accountable.
Clearly, some Denver residents feel that police are, at a minimum, not working in their best interest or, at a maximum, an actual threat to their safety. How can you fix this relationship that’s somewhat broken?
That’s really easy. Number one: Everyone has different interests. If you’re interested in protesting peacefully, you will actually see that the police will be behind you and work to make sure that you do so and in a manner that’s safe for you and the public.
What will help us to mend that relationship is to follow the orders. If we have a curfew in place, follow it, go home. There’s no reason for you to be out after eight o'clock if you are a peaceful protester. There’s no reason for you to have weapons. That is completely against what we’re trying to do when we protest the things that happened to George Floyd.
Follow the lawful orders when it's time to go home at the curfew.
I have been holding my first-ever virtual protest, and I’m trying to get other avenues.
I think the biggest thing that we can do is to hear people's voices. We all have a voice and an experience. To give light to that voice, give light to that experience, that’s how we move the needle for informing policy. That’s what I’m going to dedicate myself to do: to hear the community’s voice.
I cannot hear their voice when they bring weapons. That’s when voices become mute to me.
Come to the table in a manner that’s going to work.
Why the switch from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. for the start of the curfew?
There’s a lot to consider with that. As we open up the city, we want to consider everybody, including our businesses. We also want to make sure that the protesters have enough time to get the message out that they want to get out and have enough time to demonstrate in a peaceful manner the way we know that they can.
We are not against protest. The mayor, myself, Chief Pazen, we endorse protest. What we are against is violent behavior and riots.
What are some lessons learned so far?
I think there are a lot of lessons learned. The first lesson learned is I personally wish I would have engaged more with the productive protest in the very beginning. We were so concentrated on operationalizing the resources needed for the protest that I failed to participate in the protest. That would have been for me, just good. It would have been good to show solidarity, but also good for my personal values and soul just to show and demonstrate about this George Floyd death.
The second lesson learned is, I want to make sure that the protesters' voices are not diluted by the agitating factors of people looking to incite violence and a riot. I believe that they are two separate groups of people. I don’t believe that protesters are the ones committing the acts of violence. I wish we had jumped on that even sooner. However, we didn’t know what we didn’t know. And we are continuing to try and identify folks who are advocating violence.
Denver Police Chief Paul Pazen will host a virtual community gathering via Facebook at 6 p.m. tonight, June 3; find out more here.