After Denver Police Detective Leslie Branch-Wise went public in late February with accusations that Mayor Michael Hancock sexually harassed her six years ago when he sent Branch-Wise, a member of his security team at the time, sexually charged text messages, elected officials around Denver issued statements that mostly commended Branch-Wise for her bravery in coming forward and reiterated that the City of Denver should be a safe working environment.
But former District 1 councilwoman Susan Shepherd took her statement, which organizers read aloud at a March 7 rally calling on Hancock to resign, a step further.
"I do commend Mayor Hancock for owning up to this allegation, apologizing and taking steps to ensure that all city employees receive sexual harassment training," Shepherd wrote. "However, I am deeply disturbed that he has yet to admit that his actions constituted clear-cut sexual harassment and that he apparently only recently realized that his comments to her were offensive and hurtful.
"I find it implausible that he 'wasn’t aware' that he was sexually harassing her," she continued in her statement (which is reprinted in its entirety below). "Referring to the incidents as 'inappropriate' and 'too familiar' is a total cop-out."
Organizers of the #TimesUPHancock rally at the City and County Building included frequent Hancock critics Lisa Calderón of the Colorado Latino Forum and community organizer Candi CdeBaca. They and other speakers, including mayoral candidate Kayvan Khalatbari, called on Denver City Council to launch an independent investigation into Branch-Wise's allegations. "Denver deserves a mayor who understands what sexual harassment means," said Calderón. "We need a mayor who doesn't minimize their conduct."
Calderón alleges that Hancock retaliated against her when the city didn't renew a contract with the rehabilitation program she ran, the Community Re-entry Project, after she became a vocal critic of the mayor. Denver City Council is investigating her allegations.
"I've been targeted by Mayor Hancock,” Calderón said in an interview with Westword last week, “so when Hancock said [Detective Branch-Wise] shouldn't have been afraid to come forward, that doesn't ring true with many of our experiences. Those of us who have spoken up against the mayor and attempted to hold him accountable were retaliated against.”
A few Denver employees shared stories of harassment or retaliation at the rally. Deputy Sheriff Sonya Leyba recounted how she'd complained to a superior who had been asking her on dates despite her objections, only to be reported by the superior for insubordination and suspended for ten days. She claimed neither she nor her superior were ever moved to another assignment.
"That's the climate that's allowed to exist in the sheriff's department," she said. "No surprise that this occurs in a city where the mayor feels it's okay to harass a member of his protection team."
Rally organizers will circulate a petition on Facebook calling on Hancock to resign and Denver City Council to launch an independent investigation into the incident with Branch-Wise. Here's Shepherd's full statement:
The safety of a city's workforce should be paramount for an effectively functioning city government. I am a former Denver City Councilwoman from District 1 (2011-2015). It was during my term that Detective Leslie Branch-Wise served on Mayor Michael Hancock’s security detail. I was extremely upset to learn this past week that Mayor Hancock and his former aide Wayne McDonald were sexually harassing Detective Branch-Wise during that time.
The #metoo movement has been transformational for many women across the United States, including Detective Branch-Wise and myself. Many of us finally feel like we have a voice to share our denigrating experiences and to be acknowledged and believed. I commend Detective Branch-Wise for her tremendous courage. It is not easy to speak up, especially in her situation, as she knew she could face additional harassment. I imagine Detective Branch-Wise faced incredible anguish and stress during that period, not to mention having to give up her prestigious post.
I do commend Mayor Hancock for owning up to this allegation, apologizing and taking steps to ensure that all city employees receive sexual harassment training. However, I am deeply disturbed that he has yet to admit that his actions constituted clear-cut sexual harassment and that he apparently only recently realized that his comments to her were offensive and hurtful. He was 41 when he became Mayor and had already served the city as a councilman for 8 years. Additionally, he’d already held several professional positions in Denver prior. I find it implausible that he “wasn’t aware” that he was sexually harassing her. Referring to the incidents as “inappropriate” and “too familiar” is a total cop-out.
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I am also upset that he was committing this behavior on the heels of the prostitution ring scandal early in his term as mayor. I am angry that Detective Branch-Wise received a sexual harassment settlement of only $75,000 in 2013 against Wayne McDonald, who later won a $200,000 settlement for “wrongful termination” in 2016. Detective Branch-Wise was the victim, not McDonald, and she was barred from suing anyone else for sexual harassment in the city.
As someone all too familiar with sexual assault and harassment, I know that these incidents rarely happen in a vacuum. How many more sexual harassment victims at the city might there be? How much more inexcusable behavior was covered up at taxpayer expense? I’m also angry that the day after all this became known, the Denver Post published an editorial trivializing the whole episode by saying it “appeared to be an isolated incident.” How would the Post editorial board know unless they interviewed every female city employee since 2008 in a safe environment and could guarantee that they would not suffer retaliation? This irresponsible editorial only discourages other victims coming forward.
Finally, I am concerned that the 14 elected officials of Denver City Council are minimizing this episode. I can’t begin to imagine how demoralizing and terrifying that might be for the female half of the city’s workforce. Many of them are Denver residents as well, and thus voters. If I were a female city employee who had been sexually assaulted, I would not feel comfortable bringing a claim forward at this time, since the elected officials don’t seem to have our backs.
It’s time for Denver’s elected officials to protect the city’s workforce. It remains to be seen whether other women will come forward. If they do, I pray to God they can find at least one elected champion who is willing to go to bat for them. Otherwise, this will get swept under the rug and more women will be victimized.