A press release announcing Denver's fourth annual Start by Believing campaign, which supports sexual assault victims, does not include any mention of Mayor Michael Hancock or his office. But Hancock's name was front and center during the previous three years, with the mayor offering strong comments about the importance of believing victims on each of those occasions.
The Start by Believing shift follows Hancock's texting scandal, as well as claims by Denver detective Leslie Branch-Wise that the mayor sexually harassed her during the 2011-2012 period when she was on his security detail. Late on April 2, the Denver City Council announced that it would not be able to launch an investigation into whether the mayor's actions, for which he's apologized, constituted actual sexual harassment or simply a blurring of the line between colleague and friend, as he maintains.
When we reached out to the mayor's office regarding Start by Believing, we heard instead from Sonny Jackson, spokesman for the Denver Police Department. "In years past, this national campaign has been led locally by the Department of Safety, and for the first time this year it’s being led by the Denver Police Department," Jackson wrote via email. "The mayor has partook [sic] in the public events to launch the campaign and campaign redesign. However, this year only a press release was sent since there wasn’t anything new or different to announce (past years have launched new aspects of the campaign)."
Jackson added: "To be clear, the mayor has never been the sponsor."
Adding to these remarks is Amber Miller, spokesperson for Mayor Hancock, who belatedly contacted Westword after the publication of this post. In a statement, Miller says, "The city continues to invest in, market participate in this national campaign. The Mayor’s Office and all departments under Mayor Hancock continue to fully support the Start by Believing campaign, and moreover, the Mayor and city continue our dedicated work to support victims of sexual violence."
Hancock's advocacy is certainly much less showy than its been in the past. Prior to this year, he has been portrayed as the first among equals when it comes to partnering in the program, as is demonstrated by press releases excerpted below. That he and his office are not so much as mentioned in the year four material marks a 180-degree shift at a time when the mayor's behavior toward a female employee has raised questions and multiple calls for his resignation.
Of course, sexual harassment and sexual assault are two very different things; while both are extremely serious, the latter is a felony with a sentencing range of sixteen to 48 years behind bars. Moreover, Hancock has never said he doesn't believe Branch-Wise, who's talked about how disturbed she was by the aforementioned texts, including one that asked if she'd ever taken a pole-dancing class. Rather, he sees his messages as simply inappropriate.
Nonetheless, the optics of Hancock stressing the importance of believing victims after Branch-Wise energetically pushed for a public hearing into the question of whether he sexually harassed her and at a time when all Denver city employees are required to watch a new video about the offense (click to watch it) are very different than they were in 2015, when the mayor was happy to be seen as spearheading the effort.
The original Start By Believing press release, issued March 18, 2015, begins: "Mayor Michael B. Hancock and Denver public safety and criminal justice officials today announced the launch of a public awareness campaign called Start by Believing — a campaign focused on improving the public response to sexual assault."
Later in the text, Hancock is quoted as saying, "As a community, we want victims to know we hear you, we support you, and that you don’t have to go through the trauma of sexual assault alone. Together, we can provide a safe, caring environment where victims are empowered to courageously step forward and take action against those who have harmed them."
"Partners" charged with implementing Start by Believing were listed in the following order: The Mayor’s Office, Blue Bench, Sexual Assault Interagency Council, Department of Public Safety, Denver Police Department, Denver Sheriff Department, Denver Fire Department, Denver District Attorney’s Office and Denver Health.
Year two of Start by Believing was marked by a media event starring Hancock and promoted via another press release, which again listed the mayor's office as the first "partner."
"Mayor Michael B. Hancock and Denver public safety and criminal justice officials today participated in a billboard unveiling of a public awareness campaign called Start by Believing — a campaign focused on improving the public response to sexual assault," the item stated at its outset. Also highlighted was this quote from Hancock: "We can and we must do better as a community to support victims of sexual assault. There are many steps to the healing process, but together we can provide a safe, caring environment where victims are empowered to step forward and take action against those who have harmed them."
This sequence of events was reproduced a third time last year, when a press release stated, "Wednesday, April 5, 2017, Denver Mayor Michael B. Hancock, Denver public safety, criminal justice and medical officials, and a survivor of sexual assault discussed the importance of believing survivors of sexual assault."
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Hancock's accompanying quote: "Believing survivors of sexual assault is the most important thing we can do as a community, and as a father, brother, friend, Mayor — I start by believing. Sexual assault can happen across all demographics, it is important that all of us know how to appropriately respond. By believing survivors of sexual assault, they are more likely to receive the care and help needed to find justice." Agencies collaborating on the campaign were "the Office of Mayor Michael Hancock, Denver District Attorney’s Office, Department of Public Safety, Denver Police Department, Denver Health, Denver Marketing Office, Sexual Assault Interagency Council and The Blue Bench."
And this year? The press release sent to Westword on April 2 came from the Denver Police Department, not denvergov.org, the city's official website. After pointing out that April has been designated as Sexual Assault Awareness Month, the item notes that "the City and County of Denver and partners continue educating the community about the importance of believing victims of sexual assault. With the momentum of the #MeToo movement, everyday more and more survivors are bravely telling their stories. Do you know how best to react if a loved one tells you they were sexually assaulted? Your reaction matters. Please, start by believing victims."
The agencies participating with the DPD in this year's campaign are listed as "Denver District Attorney’s Office, Department of Public Safety, Denver Police Department, Denver Marketing Office, Sexual Assault Interagency Council and The Blue Bench."
This story was updated at 10:40 a.m. to include a statement from Amber Miller, spokesperson for Mayor Michael Hancock.