Op-Ed: Murphy Robinson Accused Me of Racism. Here’s Why That's Sexist and He Should Resign.

Murphy Robinson talking to Shaun Boyd on August 6.
Murphy Robinson talking to Shaun Boyd on August 6. CBS4
On August 6, as CBS4 cameras rolled, Murphy Robinson, executive director of the Department of Public Safety, puffed himself up to declare that two women of color, Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca and me, her former chief of staff, had discriminated against his newly hired white woman staffer. The problem: The story was patently false.

Robinson, a quickly rising millennial executive in Mayor Michael Hancock’s administration, has earned a reputation for reacting first and asking questions later. I initially had high hopes for the self-branded non-politician who got things done. His wide grin and “aw shucks” attitude made him seem approachable and sincere. Unfortunately, as it turned out, Robinson has made several high-profile and ill-informed decisions that have caused real damage to police-community relations, racial-justice reform efforts and gender equity, setting us back at least ten years.

First, during the George Floyd protests, he doubled down on the violence used by Denver police officers, resulting in unprecedented injuries to protesters who gathered to oppose police brutality. However, no one has been held accountable for the multitude of excessive-force complaints well documented by the Office of the Independent Monitor. Robinson, who called the shots from his command post, has also escaped accountability despite putting the administration in legal jeopardy that will likely cost the City and County of Denver tens of millions of dollars.

Second, in the aftermath of his widely panned law-and-order speech at the steps of City Hall on May 28, 2020, Robinson attended the Reimagining Policing Task Force, a consortium comprising over fifty community organizations and individuals working to develop alternatives to police brutality. With his bombastic pronouncements, Robinson offended nearly everyone in the meeting by justifying the actions of police and displaying a callous disregard for the trauma many victims experienced at the hands of his officers.

Third, acting on faulty information, Robinson removed DPD officer participation from that task force, declaring that officers were disrespected because they were not allowed to speak unless spoken to —  which was both false and antithetical to how the group operated. Dr. Robert Davis, who went out of his way to include members of law enforcement, was blindsided by Robinson’s public and ludicrous accusation that police were being discriminated against.

Fourth, during the height of the COVID pandemic, Robinson understandably reduced the jail population in an effort to slow the spread of the virus among inmates and staff. However, under pressure from Paul Pazen, Denver's police chief who’s on a mission to expand policing, and without any proof that there was a causal relationship between the rise of crime — a national trend — and his decision to release low-level nonviolent offenders, Robinson once again reversed course. The jail population has rapidly increased without reducing the crime rate, bringing us nearly back to where we began before the pandemic.

Finally, in my former capacity as chief of staff for Councilwoman CdeBaca, he accused me of discriminating against a white woman by denying her a briefing with the councilwoman. Once again, Robinson’s hyperbolic pronouncement was untrue: I had already left my council aide position on July 9 to take a new position before the date in question, July 15. Setting up a meeting with the new white woman staffer whose honor Robinson rushed in to defend was already in process. It was Robinson’s unresponsiveness to CdeBaca’s briefing requests over several months that resulted in her request for hearings through the Denver City Council safety committee, which were granted.

Robinson’s failure to conduct basic fact-checking before publicly defaming two women of color while coming to the rescue of a white woman who didn’t need saving is highly problematic for several reasons. First, Robinson never bothered to contact me, despite having my cell number that he’s used several times previously. A simple phone call would have cleared up the inaccurate and self-serving report from his assistant, Armando Saldate III.

Next, Robinson repeated this unsubstantiated allegation to a white woman reporter, Shaun Boyd with CBS4, who is known to have a pro-police bias. Like Robinson, Boyd failed to conduct any basic fact-checking and never reached out to me, which should be considered journalistic malpractice. These two have caused harm to my reputation and have put Councilwoman CdeBaca and myself at risk of harm through their defamatory and widely broadcast and meritless accusations.

As someone who’s dedicated my life to equity and equality, not only was this accusation of “‘reverse racism” extremely upsetting, it was misogynistic and played into the conservative narrative of false equivalence. Inherent in Robinson’s vitriolic display was a sexist trope of rivalry between women in need of male intervention.

Broadcasting these falsehoods on camera from Denver police headquarters (with an American flag behind him for good measure), Robinson perpetuated racial stereotypes by defending a seemingly helpless and faceless white woman in need of protection from an angry and hyper-visible Black woman who should be severely punished.

This historical sexist trope is harmful to all women. White women are harmed by being placed on pedestals, whether they want to be there or not, and are denied any self-agency. Black women are harmed by being placed at the bottom of society and severely punished for perceived transgressions, a pattern that starts when we are girls.

In my situation, the white woman staffer was unnamed, while my name was broadcast to thousands of viewers without my consent or prior knowledge. Additionally, Robinson demeaned my credentials, which include a law degree and doctorate, saying he essentially didn’t care how educated I was and vowed to hold me accountable. Never mind that as a private citizen, I’m not subject to the city’s ethics code or personnel rules, and deserve to be treated with the same respect as any constituent of Denver.

Robinson weaponized issues of race and gender to distract from the inequities occurring within his public safety departments, which are all headed by men. For months before my departure, Councilwoman CdeBaca and I had been raising alarms with his managers, consisting of white women and Black men, about the discrimination occurring against Black women inmates in Denver’s jails.

Specifically, despite their overrepresentation in jail, Black women only comprised 6 percent of admissions in the Denver Sheriff Department’s addiction treatment program, Recovery in a Secure Environment (RISE). When Councilwoman CdeBaca and I investigated the numbers, we saw that not only were Black women severely underrepresented in services, they also weren’t being offered diversion programs by the District Attorney’s Office and judges in comparison to white women, who were overrepresented in rehabilitative programs.

We also found that there were no Black women in decision-making positions in jail programs or Director Robinson‘s office. In other words, in the four years since I ran the City of Denver‘s reentry program, Black women inmates have lost ground while white women have gained it. This isn’t a failing of any individual white woman — if anything, it’s the fault of the Black men who are running the system that allowed this to happen, including Robinson, Sheriff Elias Diggins and Mayor Michael Hancock. So rather than remedy this racial bias against Black women in his jails and administration, Robinson decided to shoot the messengers — women of color.

For all of these reasons — including his lack of basic fact-checking, which raises questions about the thoroughness of investigations into police misconduct — Robinson has proven that he doesn’t have the temperament, experience or discernment to lead such a massive effort to transform Denver’s criminal legal system. He has been complicit in perpetuating injustices against Black women within his safety agencies while perpetuating racist and sexist stereotypes by pitting women against each other. Robinson has become Hancock’s bully-in-chief by threatening discipline and retaliating against those who get in his way, including a duly elected Denver City Councilwoman and a civilian, neither of whom he has authority over — a clear abuse and overreach of his authority.

One thing that Robinson and I do agree on: No one is above accountability. Robinson owes me, Councilwoman CdeBaca and his newly hired female manager an apology and a widely published retraction for his biased and inflammatory statements. He also owes the residents of Denver an apology for wasting their taxpayer dollars on his reckless and mercurial decision-making that is making us all feel less safe.

Robinson’s credibility is fundamentally and irreparably damaged. His last grand spectacle before the cameras should be promptly submitting his resignation. A safety director who brings harm to women doesn’t deserve to keep his job.

Lisa Calderón
Lisa Calderón, the former chief of staff for Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca, is a former 2019 Denver mayoral candidate and the first woman of color to make the ballot for mayor.

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