GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Two retired Grand Rapids Police Department lieutenants are coming to the defense of their longtime colleague who is now facing public scrutiny and has been placed on administrative leave.
“He’s a role model for officers,” retired GRPD Lt. Ralph Mason told 24 Hour News 8 Monday. “You’ll never find a captain as hard-working as Curt VanderKooi.”
The criticism comes following an incident late last year when police arrested Jilmar Ramos-Gomez after they say he set a fire in Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital and gained access to the helipad. Off duty at the time, VanderKooi reportedly learned about the suspect after seeing him on the news and then reached out to one of his federal immigration enforcement contacts to check on Ramos-Gomez’ status. Despite the fact that the suspect had a U.S. passport on his person when he was arrested, Ramos-Gomez, a citizen and Marine veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder, was detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for three days before officials determined an error had been made.
VanderKooi was counseled on what police called his use of unprofessional language for calling the suspect “loco” in his communication with ICE. But protesters said that was not enough. Critics blame VanderKooi for setting the chain of events in motion and some say he racially profiled the suspect and was wrong to contact ICE in the first place.
Retired longtime Grand Rapids police lieutenants Ralph Mason and Mark Mathis agreed to discuss the matter after being contacted by 24 Hour News 8.
Mathis said that given the circumstances and the seriousness of the crime under investigation, contacting federal law enforcement and immigration sources was appropriate, which a GRPD internal review also found. Mathis said officers investigating the crime should be using all resources to learn as much as possible about the suspect.
“If Capt. VanderKooi would’ve ran this person through any of the other 19 or 20 databases that are available to investigators, nobody would’ve cared. If this person had a Bosnian surname and Capt. VenderKooi contacted Homeland Security and ICE about that, nobody would’ve cared,” Mathis said. “But this was an unusual case because politics was interjected.”
“(VanderKooi) is just kind of the tip of an iceberg that some people are using to accomplish larger goals,” he continued.
Mason said firing VanderKooi would be a mistake that could have a negative impact on other officers in the department.
“If this can happen to Capt. VanderKooi over making a mistake on an email, what happens if something happens to me out there and someone thinks I did it wrong,” Mason said, speaking of the concern other officers may have following this ordeal.
“The real concern is this has a chilling effect,” Mathis said. “If there is a feeling amongst the police department that they do not have the support of the city government — and I’d say that feeling is fairly prevalent around the department from what I’ve seen or heard — it has a definite chilling effect on the ability to deliver law enforcement services and eventually the community safety.”
Both retired lieutenants defended the captain’s nearly 39 years of service.
“Always extremely ethical. That was the hallmark of Curt VanderKooi,” Mathis said.
“If someone wants to say he’s racist. I’m going to tell them — and I’m going to look them in the eye and tell them — ‘no.’ He’s not,” said Mason, who is black.
City officials announced last week that they would reopen the review of the matter to determine whether VanderKooi was properly disciplined given the circumstances, a move denounced by the union for Grand Rapids police command officers.
No timeline on how long the review might take was announced.
A spokesperson for the city said City Manager Mark Washington was “not able to comment on this further until the review has been completed.” The public information officer for GRPD said department leaders would not be commenting any further on the matter to “maintain the integrity of the Labor Relations Review.”