There's no evidence that Arvada police officer Brandon Valdez has ever been disciplined for using excessive force. However, a new lawsuit maintains that he faced internal review over such incidents for seven consecutive years prior to his participation in a January 2018 officer-involved shooting — an action that was later deemed justified. And while he wasn't punished for pummeling Travis Cook less than a month later, either, a new lawsuit argues that he should have been.
"We're not disputing that the police were allowed to arrest Mr. Cook," says attorney Adam Frank, a principal in the law firm of Frank & Salahuddin. "But what they were not allowed to do was beat the holy hell out of him."
Although a statement from Detective David Snelling, the public information officer for the Arvada Police Department, doesn't explicitly proclaim Valdez's innocence, it pushes back against suggestions that the officer stepped over the line. Snelling describes Cook as "six-two and 245 pounds" and asserts that he "was involved in a physical altercation with his girlfriend prior to officers' arrival on the scene."
After an investigation, Snelling goes on, "officers determined there was probable cause to arrest Mr. Cook for Felony Assault. State law mandates arrest in this situation. As detailed in the Police Report, Mr. Cook resisted officers when they attempted to place him under arrest, so officers were required to use force to protect the alleged victim and to take Mr. Cook into custody. Mr. Cook was eventually tried on charges related to this incident and was convicted of Obstruction of a Peace Officer. Mr. Cook’s actions also resulted in a violation of his probation in an earlier vehicular assault case."
Frank takes issue with much of this account, including the implication that he abused his former significant other, Alex Stumpp — "She said at trial, 'He didn't assault me,' and he was acquitted of doing anything to her," he divulges — and the assertion that "Mr. Cook resisted officers when they attempted to place him under arrest." Indeed, Cook was cleared of resisting arrest, too, and his conviction for obstruction appears to have resulted at least in part from cell phone video taken by his mother, Karalee Baker, after he'd already been pounded and handcuffed.
The clip, on view below, is the only footage available, since neither Valdez nor fellow officers Ryan Clark and Scott Thomas, who are also named in the complaint along with the City of Arvada, were wearing body cameras. "This case is point number one as to why this is a terrible policy," Frank maintains. "This all should be on video, but it's not."
According to the suit, Arvada requires any police officer who has three or more potential excessive-force incidents within a given year to undergo a review to determine if any of the behavior was improper. Because Valdez went through this process annually from 2011 to 2017, the complaint concludes that he racked up a minimum of "21 prior incidents of potential excessive force (and likely many more) leading up to the incident in this case." Examples cited include his attack on a suspect who wanted to lock his apartment door after his children went inside, as well as his delay in seeking medical attention for a shoplifter he tased even though the man went into a violent seizure after the device's probes sank into his face.
Then, on January 14, 2018, Valdez was among the Arvada officers who contacted Erick DeLeon near a Target store on the 5000 block of Kipling Street in regard to a report about a suspicious person. An APD release maintains that DeLeon, who was wanted in Denver on a felony domestic-violence/stalking warrant, subsequently attempted to drive away in his car but crashed in the Target parking lot — and as he walked away from the wreck, he was carrying a handgun. When he allegedly raised it in Valdez's direction, the officer fired back, after which DeLeon aimed his weapon at his head and killed himself.
First Judicial District DA Pete Weir concluded that Valdez had done nothing wrong. DeLeon had shown "that the well-being and safety of those around him was not of concern," Weir wrote. "Consequently, it was not unreasonable for Officer Valdez to respond to Erick DeLeon threats and actions in the manner that he did."
Later in 2018, Aurora police officer Drew Limbaugh killed Richard Gary Black moments after the homeowner saved his grandson from an attack by a crazed home invader — a tragedy that happened only 34 days after the law enforcer's involvement in another fatal shooting. The proximity of these two deaths at Limbaugh's hands inspired Senator Rhonda Fields to create legislation intended to make sure that cops who've killed or participated in an officer-involved shooting while on duty are physically and emotionally prepared before returning to the streets. The resulting measure, Senate Bill 19-091, which passed last year, mandates that police agencies must develop policies to support officers involved in a shooting, fatal or not, that address "pre-incident training and preparation, support for the officer at the scene of the incident, post-incident support and services, guidelines for temporary leave or duty assignment, and guidelines for return to duty."
Arvada's policies were due no later than January 1 of this year, meaning they weren't in effect when Valdez killed DeLeon — and Frank doubts that he was emotionally ready to be back on the force on February 11, about four weeks later, when he encountered Cook. "One of the reasons Arvada is a defendant in this case is that the city has seen the research showing that when an officer shoots someone, it has all sorts of psychological effects," he says. "It can make them angry and irritable and prone to rage. As best we know, Arvada had not implemented training or policies to make sure all of those issues were dealt with before Officer Valdez went back on the street. And he shouldn't have been on patrol. He was a ticking time bomb."
Here's how Frank explains what happened on the day in question. "There was an argument between Travis Cook and his then-girlfriend, Alex. They were living in her parents' basement, and based on the argument getting loud, her father, Victor Stumpp, called the police."
Initially, Officer Thomas interviewed Cook, while Clark spoke with Alex, Frank maintains. Then Clark called Thomas over, leaving Valdez with Cook as his mom looked on. "Mr. Cook quite reasonably tried to tell what happened to Officer Valdez, and for some reason, Valdez would have none of it. He wouldn't look at Mr. Cook and was rolling his eyes. When Mr. Cook said, 'I'm just trying to tell you my story, bro,' Officer Valdez said, 'I'm not your bro' — and when Mr. Cook tried again, saying, 'Dude, I'm just trying to tell you my story,' he said, 'I'm not your dude.' Then, Mr. Cook asked, 'What should I call you?,' and he wouldn't even tell him his name. He just said, 'Officer.'"
At that point, Frank continues, "Mr. Cook got reasonably frustrated. He stood up and started walking to the kitchen — and Officer Valdez followed him and confronted him, and tensions started to escalate. Nothing happened at that point because Mr. Cook's mother calmed everybody down, and Mr. Cook took a seat. Valdez then called the other officers over and they decided they were going to arrest Mr. Cook. Valdez was on Mr. Cook's right side, Clark was on the left side, and Thomas was behind him — and they started giving him contradictory instructions. Two of them said to stand up and the third one said to sit down. Since he couldn't do both of those things, he stayed sitting down. Then all three of them said to stand up, but before he could do it — Clark admitted this at trial — they all grabbed him and Valdez just starts whaling on him, punching him in the face at least three times."
In the video taken by Cook's mom, Valdez asserts that her son elbowed him in the chin, prompting the assault. See it below. Warning: Its contents may disturb some readers.
The claim that Cook prompted his own beating is bogus, Frank thinks. "There were two people who were independent witnesses to this, who watched the whole thing happen. One of them is Mr. Cook's mother, and the other is Victor Stumpp. Now, after the incident, and after Travis and Alex broke up, Mr. Stumpp made it very clear in a recorded interview that he never planned on seeing Travis again in his life. He said Travis was no longer welcome in his house, so he was definitely not reporting out of any desire to help Travis. But he stuck to his guns, even when he was pressed: He said there was no elbow. And Karolee Baker said the same thing."
In the beginning, Cook was charged with both second-degree assault and third-degree assault against Valdez, as well as resisting arrest and obstructing a peace officer. But following the testimony from the Stumpps and Baker, the first three counts fell short.
As for why obstruction stuck, Frank notes that "Colorado law says resisting arrest only goes until the point of the arrest, and obstruction can continue through an arrest as well as after the arrest — and in the video, you can see that after he's been beaten and bloodied, Travis isn't happy. At one point, he tries to make sure his mother is recording his face, and that leads to him pushing up while the officers are trying to push him down. That was the obstruction part. But the jury found that he didn't throw an elbow at Officer Valdez, and he was found not guilty of assaulting him."
Regarding Valdez's own track record of incidents requiring review, Frank points at his employer: "Arvada's actions over the years have made it clear to Officer Valdez, in particular, and all Arvada police officers in general, that if they use excessive force, the city will exonerate them and claim the force was not excessive."
In his view, the damage done to Cook "is what happens when you have a police officer who repeatedly uses excessive force and a department that repeatedly exonerates him even though his force is excessive. The officer is empowered to keep using excessive force, and that makes incidents like what happened to Mr. Cook inevitable. Arvada is responsible for controlling its officers, and instead of doing that, it tells them to keep on going out and using whatever force they feel like — and the result is that people in Arvada get brutalized."
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.