HPD Officer At The Center Of A $1 Million Wrongful Death Settlement Has A History Of Complaints
Isaiah Stoeck said he complied with Honolulu Police Cpl. Scott Valdez’s orders when the officer approached his vehicle just after midnight in April 2019.
Stoeck said that Valdez threatened to shoot the 19-year-old, struck him in the head with the butt of his gun and – after his hands were already behind his back – repeatedly hit him in the head while calling him “a fucking idiot.”
The officer also put his knee on the teen’s neck, Stoeck reported, causing him to say multiple times: “I can’t breathe.” The encounter ended with a hard kick to Stoeck’s ribcage, Stoeck told the commission.
The force was excessive, Stoeck said, especially since the teenager was only 114 pounds.
What Stoeck didn’t know at the time was that Valdez already had a history of alleged misconduct.
On Wednesday, the Honolulu City Council voted to pay $1 million to settle a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the mother of Cameron Johnson, a man Valdez shot and killed in 2017 while the officer was investigating a stolen vehicle.
Previously, taxpayers paid out $120,000 in a separate lawsuit naming Valdez as one of several officers who allegedly assaulted a man they were arresting on the North Shore in 2012. With a strike to the head, Valdez rendered the man unconscious, the complaint said.
And in 2010, Valdez was criminally charged after he allegedly attacked a motorist he pulled over. Prosecutors took him to trial twice, but both cases were dismissed after juries couldn’t come to a unanimous verdict.
As for Stoeck’s case, the Honolulu Police Commission found that Valdez exhibited “conduct unbecoming” a police officer but said there was insufficient evidence to prove excessive or malicious use of force.
“It’s frustrating, just thinking about the fact that after all of that, he’s still working as a police officer,” Stoeck said. “Seeing all the other stuff he’s done, and there are no consequences.”
Today, Valdez works at HPD’s training division. He’s been a Honolulu police officer for 22 years, department spokeswoman Michelle Yu said.
Yu did not respond to requests for comment about Valdez’s disciplinary record. His name does not appear on the department’s annual report on misconduct that is submitted to the Legislature.
A message left with Valdez at the HPD training academy on Tuesday was not returned.
Lawsuit Challenged HPD Narrative Of Fatal Shooting
The wrongful death lawsuit argued that Valdez had no justification for pulling the trigger at Malaekahana Beach Park in Laie in January 2017.
At the time of the shooting, police alleged that Johnson had hit the officer with the vehicle he was driving, prompting the officer to shoot. But the lawsuit cast doubt on that account.
The complaint states that witnesses saw the officer have a brief conversation with Johnson, who was sitting in an allegedly stolen car, when they saw the officer step back and fire multiple shots into the driver’s side window, the lawsuit says.
“As the vehicle slowly rolled backward down the incline, the officer continued to walk alongside the vehicle while firing multiple shots into the driver’s window,” the lawsuit says.
Johnson was struck in the torso and back.
Attorneys for Johnson’s mother, Muriel Ikeda, argued that Valdez violated her son’s constitutional and civil rights by using excessive force, robbing him of due process and acting negligently.
The lawsuit also placed blame on the city for allegedly failing to properly train its officers.
In court records, city lawyers mounted numerous defenses, including that Valdez acted “lawfully and properly in the execution of his duties” and that any injuries the plaintiff sustained were the result of his own misconduct.
Deputy Corporation Counsel Krishna Jayaram did not respond to a request for comment on the Johnson lawsuit settlement.
‘A Bully With A Badge’
Myles Breiner, an attorney who filed the case involving the 2012 incident, believes HPD had “ample” justification to fire Valdez before Johnson was killed.
“All the money in the world won’t change that he should’ve been terminated, and this person would’ve been alive today,” he said. “It’s another black eye for HPD.”
Valdez’s criminal charges stem from a traffic stop in March 2010, according to news reports at the time.
The driver, a 19-year-old community college student, said that he made a hand gesture at officers before Valdez pulled him over, cursed at him, pushed him twice on the chest and issued him numerous violations, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported at the time.
Valdez was charged with illegally entering the car and criminal property damage, and Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Scott Bell called Valdez “a bully with a badge,” the newspaper reported. Valdez pleaded not guilty.
In two trials, juries couldn’t reach a unanimous verdict and the case was dismissed with prejudice, meaning prosecutors could not try the case again.
In 2012, Valdez attracted attention again.
He and four other officers were sued after they arrested a man near Giovanni’s Shrimp Truck on the North Shore.
The officers were accused of using excessive force, and the department was accused of withholding evidence that would have exonerated its target, who spent nine months in jail.
“It ruined my life,” the plaintiff, Jonah Kaahu, told Hawaii News Now at the time he filed his case. “These guys have so much power, they can go around and do whatever they like and it’s nothing to them that they can ruin people’s lives.”
Kaahu was shoveling gravel in the business’s parking lot on an August evening when two men began “taunting” him, according to the complaint.
When police arrived, they pointed their guns at Kaahu and ordered him to get on the ground, the lawsuit says.
Kaahu tried to explain that he wasn’t sure whether the men bothering him – who were standing between him and the officers – were armed, but officers continued to yell at him to get on the ground, according to the lawsuit.
One of the officers indicated that he might use a Taser on Kaahu, so Kaahu started running away, the lawsuit says. But he soon stopped, turned around and put his hands up, the complaint says.
At that point, Valdez ran up to Kaahu and “struck (him) in the face,” rendering him temporarily unconscious, the lawsuit says.
Valdez and another officer, Marc Randall, then held Kaahu down, with Valdez kneeling on his leg while Randall laid on his back, the lawsuit states. After Kaahu’s teeth “inadvertently” sunk into Randall’s arm, Randall forced Kaahu’s head onto the ground, causing his head to “bounce, at least once, off the ground,” the lawsuit says.
Kaahu told the officers that he couldn’t breathe, according to the lawsuit, but the officers continued to hold him down and push his face into the dirt.
“When Plaintiff Jonah failed to put his arms behind his back, Defendant Valdez, who at this point was holding Plaintiff Jonah’s left hand, began bending Plaintiff Jonah’s fingers causing Plaintiff Jonah severe pain,” the lawsuit says.
The Kaahu lawsuit was settled in 2018.
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