When asked to recount a turbulent interaction with police that has had the greatest influence on his life, Murphy Robinson, Denver's newly appointed safety director, had to think.
"I have many," he said, but one encounter sticks out most.
Around 2009 when he was attending college in Cincinnati and had recently become a police officer, Robinson, who identifies as Afro-Latino, said he was working a swing shift and had just gotten off duty when he was pulled over by a white state trooper about two blocks from his house.
“Mind you, the place I lived was the same place I policed,” he said during a virtual community roundtable on public safety Tuesday night. "Five minutes earlier, this same state trooper probably would've backed me up on a call should I have needed him.”
When the trooper approached Robinson, who was driving a “beat up ’88 Cherokee, because that’s all I could afford at the time,” Robinson said the trooper held a gun to his temple.
“He said, and I quote, this is literally what he said: ‘N-----, you give me your guns, your drugs and whatever you got, ‘cause I know you have it.’"
For a split second, the call — which drew in roughly 50 people — was silent.
“At that time, I kept my hands on the steering wheel, and I thought I was going to die.”
Robinson told the officer he “didn’t have any of that stuff,” but what he did have was his driver’s license, registration and proof of insurance.
“I also have a badge, if you’d like to see that,” Robinson remembered saying. “I’m an off-duty officer.”
When the trooper learned this, he put his gun away and explained that Robinson fit the description of someone else, a claim Robinson believes was a lie.
“Then he ran back to his car and jetted off,” he said.
“I sat there, and I cried. And I was scared. And I thought I was going to die.”
After collecting himself, Robinson called his sergeant, who was an African American woman, to report what had happened and get help filing a complaint.
“I will tell you right now, nothing happened to that officer,” he said. “To this day, we don’t even know who he was because he never even called out that he was on a traffic stop.”
Robinson, who was born and raised in Denver, then shifted the focus back to that of the roundtable’s, which was to hear from community members about their personal experiences with Denver police officers and how they envision the city's policing moving forward.
The meeting comes in the wake of George Floyd protests, in which Denver police officers responded to a small number of people throwing fireworks, rocks and water bottles with tear gas and foam bullets — many of which hurt innocent people, including journalists.
“What you hear on TV, what you see, it’s real,” Robinson said. “All of you have had those experiences, but I want you to know your public safety director has also had those experiences.
“This is why this, for me, is so powerful,” he said of continuing to hold town halls to hear from the community. “Because I want to ignite these stories and make sure that that can’t happen to anyone else.”
Robinson intended to host a “demands” meeting Thursday, he said, in which he wanted to discuss what policies the department can put in place and how the community will hold safety officials accountable.
“But I think before then, I want to schedule another one of these,” he said, referring to the virtual community roundtable.
“I want to schedule a time that we can continue to hear some of the things that you all are going through,” he said.
Continuing the conversation with the community and hearing more personal stories, he said, will help him figure out how to “lean in” to some of the safety department’s operational challenges.
Mayor Michael Hancock appointed Robinson to the top safety position on May 20, five days before the death of Floyd in Minneapolis, and in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
Robinson served as deputy mayor in 2019 for roughly eight months before transitioning to his role as the chief operating officer for the city. Prior to that position, Hancock had appointed him in August 2017 as executive director for the Department of General Services.
“As a former law enforcement officer himself," Hancock said in a statement last month, "he knows firsthand what it takes to keep our police, fire and sheriff departments performing at their very best, and I have every confidence that he will continue to be a phenomenal leader for this critical department.”
"I know that we are not going to leave this moment in time with void," Robinson said in his final remarks Tuesday night. "We're not going to not move the needle. We are going to change what policing looks like, and I'm not looking at changing just Denver, but I want to change what policing looks like in the nation. I want to lead that.
"I won't be able to sleep at night nor will I be able to continue in my career, whatever that looks like, if we don't make sure we change this for our kids," said Robinson, who is a father. "I don't want our kids to have the same kind of stories that we've heard tonight.
"Help me do that," he told the community roundtable. "I need you all to help me."