GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The Grand Rapids Police Department captain who reported a U.S. citizen to federal immigration officials is on administrative leave as the city reviews whether he was “properly held accountable.”
City Manager Mark Washington announced the review of Capt. Curt VanderKooi’s actions Thursday.
VanderKooi is the officer who contacted U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement after Jilmar Ramos-Gomez was arrested for allegedly setting a fire inside Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital and somehow gaining access to the hospital’s helipad.
Washington agreed police did their job protecting the community when they responded to the Nov. 21 call.
“My concern is not about the officers involved in the response on the day of the incident but the way a senior command member of the department handled the matter after the officers’ initial response,” he concluded in a statement released Thursday.
The problem lies with an email VanderKooi sent to ICE, in which he called Ramos-Gomez “loco.”
Ramos-Gomez is a former U.S. Marine who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. ICE says he told agents he was in the country illegally, though he was born and raised in Grand Rapids. He was held by ICE for three days in December until his attorney proved he is a citizen.
USE OF ‘UNPROFESSIONAL LANGUAGE’
While an internal investigation found GRPD was justified in calling in the feds, Interim Chief David Kiddle earlier this week said that the department is sorry for the actions that led to Ramos-Gomez’s detention. He also said VanderKooi acted without consulting anyone else at GRPD when he contacted a friend at ICE from his home to report Ramos-Gomez after seeing his picture on 24 Hour News 8.
During a city commission meeting, Kiddle read a statement that he said was written by VanderKooi in which the captain apologized for describing Ramos-Gomez as “loco.” Kiddle said he had addressed VanderKooi’s use of “unprofessional language.”
Unsatisfied by the apologies, community members called for VanderKooi be fired because of the language he used and for contacting ICE at all.
The city manager says he asked the city’s Labor Relations Office to review whether VanderKooi was appropriately disciplined for his “unprofessional conduct.”
“This review affirms my commitment to safety over status and following impartial policing protocols,” Washington stated.
VanderKooi will remain on administrative leave pending the outcome of the review, which Washington expects back “in the coming weeks.”
The city manager also reiterated that Kiddle is reviewing the department’s policies and protocols related to contacting federal authorities.
RIGHTS GROUPS SAY MORE NEEDS TO BE DONE
The American Civil Liberties Union and Michigan Immigrant Rights Center, which are working with the Ramos-Gomez family, applauded the move to put VanderKooi on leave and keep investigating.
“This is a great first step — it’s not the only step — but it’s a great first step towards acknowledging they have heard the demands of the community,” Hillary Scholten, a lawyer for MIRC, said.
She said GRPD’s justification for calling in ICE — saying there was suspicion that the case could be linked to terrorism — was a “smokescreen” for racial discrimination.
MIRC and the ACLU said the city should stop all communication with ICE that’s not required by law and to make any dealings with ICE public in a monthly report.
Wondering about the balance between public safety and meeting expectations and criticism, 24 Hour News 8 asked if MIRC and the ACLU recognize that GRPD is making efforts to improve despite a few high-profile blunders.
“I don’t think it’s, ‘You can’t do anything right.’ You actually do things right all the time and we applaud you for that. We applaud the police for the many things they do right, but that doesn’t mean that you don’t take responsibility when you do something wrong,” Miriam Aukerman, a senior attorney at the ACLU, said.
“Our GRPD has a number of incredible individuals on it who are truly dedicated to the community and public safety and it’s really doing them a disservice to continue to allow individuals like Capt. VanderKooi to act like this and go unchecked,” Scholten said.
Aukerman suggested someone else take VanderKooi’s place as GRPD’s liaison to ICE.
“If you cannot hold a person accountable in a case like this, when are you going to hold a person accountable? And it really shows that the system is broken, that we need to have much better accountability, much better oversight in order to make sure we protect people in the community,” she said.
She pointed out that this isn’t the first time VanderKooi has been accused of wrongdoing linked to racial profiling. He was named in two previous lawsuits that the ACLU was involved in regarding GRPD’s policy of routinely photographing and fingerprinting people who didn’t have identification — a practice GRPD ultimately scaled back significantly.
POLICE UNION: VANDERKOOI A ‘SCAPEGOAT’
The Grand Rapids Police Command Officers Association, of which VanderKooi is a member, said in a Thursday afternoon press conference that VanderKooi was being treated unfairly.
Union leaders said the matter had been dealt with: The city manager had reviewed the internal investigation, VanderKooi was “exonerated” and “coached” on his use of unprofessional language.
They said reopening the case — which they repeatedly called “unprecedented” — was a violation of VanderKooi’s due process rights under their collective bargaining agreement. The union said it will support VanderKooi as the investigation moves forward to make sure his right are upheld and that he won’t be further disciplined or forced into retirement.
>>PDF: Union statement
Union President Capt. Mike Maycroft said VanderKooi is currently GRPD’s longest-serving sworn officer with nearly 39 years on the force. He said that there has been talk that pushing him to retire would make the problem go away. Maycroft said that would be wrong.
Maycroft said he believed VanderKooi was being used as a “scapegoat” to quell public outrage over Ramos-Gomez’s wrongful detention.
Union leaders also said they would be open to working out new policies to prevent similar situations in the future. They said they haven’t been involved in recent dialogue between the ACLU and the city, but they would like to be at the table.
In response to arguments that GRPD shouldn’t police itself, Union Vice President Capt. Geoff Collard said outside consultants had found the department holds itself and its officers accountable “at a rate that greatly exceeds any national standards that they are aware of.”
>>App users: Watch the full press conference
The union also argued VanderKooi being placed leave is the latest in a series of incidents that demonstrate city officials don’t support GRPD.
“…Over the past two years, the elected officials and appointed leadership within the city of grand rapid will dismiss any actions of the Grand Rapids Police Department that are in compliance with established laws, policies and recognized best practices in law enforcement and will instead cower to any mob rule behavior of any organizations that raise vocal opposition,” Collard said, reading a prepared statement.
He said a third-party consultant brought in to help improve police-community relations has found that the majority of people trust the department, and asked that the “silent majority” would make their support known to city officials.