GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The Grand Rapids Police Department Internal Affairs Unit found no wrongdoing by the captain who called federal immigration officials to report a man who was actually an American citizen, leading to his wrongful detention. But now, that captain is again facing disciplinary action.
It marked only the third time in the 23-year history of the board, which is charged with investigating citizens’ complaints against police, that it has reversed an Internal Affairs conclusion.
“In the three years that I’ve been chairman of the board, this is the first time that we’ve reversed a decision,” Huemartin Robinson II, the chair of the Civilian Appeal Board, told 24 Hour News 8 Thursday.
In fact, the last time it happened was 11 years ago.
The decision to reverse came after the board looked at the information from Internal Affairs and an appeal made by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center.
“There have been two Internal Affairs investigations and those were a whitewash,” ACLU attorney Miriam Aukerman, ACLU attorney said.
The ACLU is representing Jilmar Ramos-Gomez, the Marine who was in possession of his passport before he was held for three days by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Ramos-Gomez, who has post-traumatic stress disorder after serving overseas, was arrested after he allegedly started a fire at a local hospital. Capt. Curt VanderKooi, who at the time was GRPD’s liaison to ICE, had called the feds from home without consulting anyone else after seeing Ramos-Gomez on TV.
Aukerman said the Civilian Appeal Board revealed that Internal Affairs did not even look at the other 89 incidents in which the ACLU claims VanderKooi contacted ICE only about people of color.
“An independent civilian board looking at that same evidence and saying ‘No, that’s not true, this was racial profiling,'” Aukerman said of the decision.
She said it shows the need for vigorous independent review of police actions.
“Last night, we saw accountability,” Aukerman said. “You can’t just let the police look at themselves because they’re not going to look at the really important issues here.”
While pleased with the outcome, Aukerman said VanderKooi is not the entire problem and there must be changes made in GRPD policies and culture.
“This is a transformative moment for the city because it’s a call to action, it’s a call for all of us to say we need a better system for police responsibility, for police accountability,” Aukerman said.
She said that as things stand now, the Civilian Appeal Board is weak because it lacks the ability to independently investigate and hear from both sides.
The board has been criticized for often siding with police.
“I totally understood the position (held by some) that the board was a rubber stamp for GRPD,” Robinson said.
He said it has been undergoing changes to become more independent and thorough.
“This was just the right case at the right time for us to be able to kind of show the community that we are serious about what we do,” Robinson said. “We are going to take it serious, we are going to take our time and we are going to make a decision that is fair.”
The Civilian Appeal Board meets again May 22 to issue a statement along with its formal decision. It will next be up to City Manager Mark Washington to decide what, if anything, to do when it comes to VanderKooi, a 39-year veteran of the department.
“The exact sanction is really a question obviously for Mr. Washington but clearly we would be very disappointed if it just goes back to business as usual,” Aukerman said.