Late on May 28, Murphy Robinson, who'd just been named executive director of the Department of Public Safety by Mayor Michael Hancock on May 20, issued the following statement regarding the protests still under way in downtown Denver:
My thoughts and prayers are with the family of George Floyd. I am outraged by the actions of the officers who caused his death and I stand in solidarity with all who are demanding justice.
However, I urge those who are protesting in Denver this evening to march in peace. Violence only feeds violence, and at its worst, it has the potential to harm innocent people.
The Department of Public Safety stands alongside our residents to ensure our staff act appropriately enforcing the laws of our city. My expectations as the Director is that we hold our staff to the highest standards and under my leadership, nothing less will be tolerated.
I urge everyone in Denver, both residents and officers, to treat each other with the respect they deserve.
A former police officer, Robinson was named the interim Public Safety director after its previous executive director, Troy Riggs, stepped down at the end of January. As the executive director of Public Safety, which houses the sheriff, police and fire departments, Robinson will be in charge of an agency that currently has an annual budget of $588 million. He also needs to oversee the hiring of a new sheriff and a new fire chief. And in the wake of last night's demonstrations, he'll have to gauge the law enforcement response to the protests.
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Those protests hadn't yet happened when we spoke with Robinson by phone a few days ago to hear his thoughts on what he'll bring to the position and what he hopes to prioritize during his tenure.
Westword: Tell me about your past career in law enforcement.
Murphy Robinson: I was a police officer with Xavier Police Department in Ohio before I came to Brighton, Colorado. I was a police officer in Brighton, and I also did a number of other things in Brighton. From there, I became a city manager intern. As I got into city management, I was blessed to become assistant city manager for general services. Then I became the chief of staff and deputy city manger in Englewood. From there, Mayor Hancock heard about me and asked me to run the team at the Denver Department of General Services. I became the deputy mayor for about eight months. And then the mayor asked me after his election to be his chief operating officer. Then Troy Riggs left, and there was a void in a leadership position. Now here I am.
What qualities and traits make you a good fit for this job?
First and foremost, I am the same person wherever I show up. Whether it’s as a public safety director, a chief operating officer, a father, a community member, a Denverite, and a Denver-born-and-raised person or a church member. Every piece of me is the reason I’m here, and is also the reason why I make sure I’m the same person everywhere I show up. That consistency is huge.
Integrity. I pride myself in being able to exercise integrity in whatever I do, and strive to make decisions based on that in whatever position I'm in.
In my leadership, I am a person who can make tough decisions. I don’t go away from having tough conversations or making tough decisions. That’s a quality that every leader should have or learn.
I’m a quick study. I like to learn on the job. The moment you stop learning is the moment you should quit. I like to understand what’s happening on the ground.
What are your major priorities for the department?
Because I am a director who has inherited the time that we’re in as COVID, it really forces me to concentrate on a few things:
First, how do we recover from COVID as a public safety department? How do we assist in the social and economic impacts that our city and businesses have seen in this time?
That touches on public safety in every way. In our budget, in the way we deploy our personnel, and in the fact that we have to respond to the citizens who call us that have to deal with the same issues. Like domestic violence from having an argument. Or those that haven’t gotten a paycheck in the last few months deciding to commit a burglary. We have to figure out how do we give our citizens the resources we need to help make decisions. That'll be our focus for the next year or year and a half.
Given that your public safety priorities may be sidelined by COVID-19, what new initiatives do you hope to work on?
I wouldn’t say that things are sidelined, by any means. It’s just the cards that we’re dealt as a city.
I am not one to just create initiatives out of my hat just to create them and say they’re mine. I’m looking for things to be informed on what does our city need — to really look at criminal justice reform.
As you know, we let out a lot of people in our jail to help fight the spread in our jail because of COVID.
The question I have for the police chief, the district attorney and the sheriff, is if we were able to let out those folks so quickly, why would we bring them back so quickly?
Chief [Paul] Pazen has launched what he’s called precision policing, and really using census blocks to inform us on how we deploy our policing strategies and how we mitigate from having the police to arrest in the first place. I plan on partnering with Chief Pazen on that.
I'll also partner with local community activists or other folks in the community.
I don’t have any major new initiatives at this time, because not only are we facing a historic and unprecedented time with COVID, but also I like to have the data and community inform me on what they want.
How are you working to ensure the administration gets it right in choosing the next permanent sheriff?
What we have going, I have put together a team of people from the community and just different stakeholders that are from all different backgrounds. They are looking to find a sheriff that knows how to run a large operation in a jail, but they are also looking for someone who knows the community and knows what it takes to bridge that gap between community and the sheriff’s department and jail. I'm utilizing that voice and listening to that voice.
A good example of that is the fact that we are re-posting the position to get more candidates. That was a direct ask from the committee to me. And that’s why I did that.
What do you see as ways to decrease recidivism in Denver?
I love the fact that you asked that question.
I plan to provide opportunities and programs to help people see that there are other options than a life of crime and a life that lands them in jail. I have family members who have experienced going to jail because of choices that they’ve made. What I’ve talked to them often about, if you had just made a better choice, do you think it would’ve helped you not go through what you went through? The answer is often yes.
I have a unique interest in also partnering with our schools. How you make sure that we reach families and children to make sure that we don’t see repeat, generational recidivism that we’ve seen for decades.
I don’t have all the answers, and I'll be talking to people. The unique thing about leading a large organization like this, we have a lot of experience in the community and department that I’m going to tap into. I want to hear what people need. I plan on utilizing my resources in our community, our neighbors, our friends, our colleagues, to help me move the needle. And Denver City Council. City council is huge. They are constantly hearing from citizens what we can do to move the needle.
This question is particularly topical right now. What are some avenues you’ll pursue for improving relationships between law enforcement and communities of color?
First and foremost, the only way to build relationship is to spend time. I plan on spending more time with my community. I am a man of color. I’m an Afro-Latino. My family is from Panama.
I plan on spending more time with all of our communities of color and really helping understand what they want to see in our police department. Just helping bridge that gap in relationship. Ninety percent of the problem is the gap in relationship on both sides.
How do we bridge that gap? Talking to one another, doing coffee with one another, putting out forums where we can have frank conversations. I want our community to have a voice. I want them to be heard. When I say our community, I mean police officers. I want community to understand what it’s like for police officers to come into their community and do policing, and I think that would help them understand how reactions happen.
When we have an incident, it will help us gather together as a community instead of into divisive separate groups.
The downtown jail population is hovering at around 1,000, approximately half its pre-COVID-19 level. Criminal justice reform advocates say this shows that Denver could have been keeping the population this low all along. Are you going to strive to keep the population at this level?
I think there’s a balance. There’s a balance that we need to make sure that we can impact on, because the last thing I want to happen is that we let someone out of jail or we don’t put someone in jail and then they go out and harm someone else. That’s on us. I believe there’s a specific balance that needs to take place.
I can’t speak to whether Denver should have been doing this all along. But I did sign the order that required the sheriff to let folks out on personal recognizance bond as well as talk to the sheriff’s office to allow for how we can continue to do this in a safe manner. That will allow for the community to remain safe while also keeping people in jail who should be in jail. This balance is not one that we’ve seen in our generation. I think it’s a unique opportunity.
I don’t believe that my predecessors had this opportunity. Had they let folks out of jail as quickly as we have with this pandemic, they would have been ridiculed, criticized. They led in a different time. This opportunity gives me the chance to take a step back and figure out how this can work for us and keep the jail population as low as possible. That is my goal.
Will it increase? Absolutely. We are seeing increase in violent crimes, mandatory arrest crimes. But my goal is to keep the jail population as low as humanly possible.
Where can we expect some possible budget cuts in the Department of Public Safety?
That is not a question I'm prepared to answer at this time. I am looking at all of our budget as well as everything we’re doing in public safety to see where we can move the needle. Public safety is one of those agencies that has a critical and crucial mission. There are consequences to making cuts that may not be appropriate. We are thoughtfully working through this.
And working with the mayor's office to make sure that any cuts that are done are done with thought and data that is informing that we can have no impact.
How are you working to manage the COVID-19 situation at the downtown jail, which has become a hot spot for the virus?
While it is a hot spot for the virus, know that it is one of the best-implemented plans across the state for any jail. And this comes from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment themselves, who have told me that. This pandemic hit us in ways that we did not expect in a lot of areas, one of which is the jail. However, the jail was the first plan of action that we put in place in figuring how to mitigate the jail population from getting it. Releasing inmates is one tactic.
The other piece of why it’s a hot spot: We did something that no other jail did at the time. We started to test everyone in the jail — not just people that are symptomatic, but also those who were asymptomatic. People that had virus in their body. Therefore it did make our infected population go up, but that’s because we informed ourselves.
What we found is, a lot of those people were asymptomatic. It allowed us to stop the curve, by isolating those folks and giving them the best treatment possible. And we have given every deputy and inmate masks.
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I would argue that we’ve done a good job. There is always room for improvement, and we always seek ways with public-health partners to get rid of or mitigate the spread of the virus.
Anything else you want to add?
I look forward to serving in this position. I look forward to serving people of the city and county of Denver. I look forward to partnerships to see how we’re going to make historic moves to implement what this department has done for the community.
I’m humbled by the opportunity to lead Denver, and I look forward to a good few years in this position.
This Q&A was edited for length and clarity.