Bliss: Politics not dictating immigration cases

Grand Rapids

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Is Grand Rapids city hall violating due process by bowing to outside political pressure?

It’s a question brought up by leaders of the Grand Rapids Police Command Officers Association in the wake of two controversial decisions involving police and immigration enforcement protest groups.

It’s a charge Grand Rapids Mayor Rosalynn Bliss denies.  

“No, no. Absolutely not, absolutely not,” Bliss told 24 Hour News 8 following Tuesday’s City Commission work session. “This is about transparency and accountability. When issues are brought to our attention, it’s our responsibility to follow up.”

Until Tuesday, the mayor had been silent on one of the issues: the placing on leave of Capt. Curt VanderKooi, a 39-year veteran of the Grand Rapids Police Department. Twice last week, 24 Hour News 8 was told by a city spokesman the mayor and other city officials would not be available to answer questions on the matter.

GRPD Internal Affairs gave VanderKooi a mild reprimand for the derogatory use of the word “loco” when describing Jimar Ramos-Gomez, a U.S. Marine veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder, to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

GRPD says VanderKooi contacted ICE because of terrorism concerns after Ramos-Gomez allegedly set fire to a hallway and then broke onto the helipad at Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital. VanderKooi, who is GRPD’s liaison with ICE, was off duty at the time and did not know investigating officers had already found Ramos-Gomez’s U.S. passport. The contact ultimately led to Ramos-Gomez being held by ICE for three days in December even though there was proof he is an American citizen.

After an activist group shut down a City Commission meeting last week, Grand Rapids City Manager Mark Washington ordered a review to determine if VanderKooi was appropriately disciplined. While that happens, VanderKooi was put on leave.

Critics, including the union, called the move a violation of due process.       

The mayor says it was Washington’s call.

But the city manager is not elected. The mayor is.

“I also want to be very clear that myself, as well as all of the commissioners around this table, we do not oversee the police chief and we don’t over see anyone in that department,” Bliss said.

Then there’s the Target 8 report last week on the decision by the city attorney to drop charges against two activists who broke through a police line during a May Day protest last year.

Leaders of the command officers union accused the mayor of ordering those charges dropped, saying the administration is ignoring the law and “cower(ing) to any mob rule.” Bliss denied she ordered the charges be dropped.   

“I’m very disappointed in the tactics and the allegation. It’s not true. I didn’t direct our city attorney to do anything,” Bliss told 24 Hour News 8, reiterating the response she gave in a December email.  

A city spokesman told Target 8 the city attorney decided to withdraw the warrants considering “the global conversation around immigration at that time.”

24 Hour News 8 asked Bliss if, as the city’s top elected official, she was concerned with the precedent, legal and otherwise, that the city attorney’s decision may set.

“It’s her decision. She makes decisions every day,” Bliss said.

As for VanderKooi being placed on leave, a city spokesperson said the review continues, but there’s no word on when it will be completed. 

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