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ACLU says documents show "racial profiling" by GRPD in case involving Marine combat vet

Photo courtesy of the family of Jilmar Ramos-Gomez
Jilmar Ramos-Gomez is a U.S. citizen and a Marine combat veteran who was detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement for three days to face possible deportation in December of 2018.

The ACLU of Michigan says the Grand Rapids police engaged in a “clear case of racial profiling” when one of its officers contacted immigration enforcement officials after the arrest of Jilmar Ramos-Gomez.

Ramos-Gomez is a U.S. citizen, and a Marine combat veteran, who was detained for three days last December by Immigration and Customs Enforcement to face possible deportation. He was originally arrested by GRPD for allegedly setting a fire and breaking onto the helipad area at Spectrum Butterworth hospital in Grand Rapids.

“Could you please check his status?” asked GRPD Captain Curt VanderKooi in an email to a local Immigration and Customs Enforcement officer several hours after Ramos-Gomez’s initial arrest.

The ACLU released the email, along with other emails and messages it obtained during the investigation. GRPD says VanderKooi did nothing wrong by contacting ICE.

“The officer, who is assigned as our department’s liaison to ICE, had concluded that Mr. Ramos-Gomez’s actions met the criteria of a potential act of terrorism,” GRPD interim police chief David Kiddle said in a statement posted to Facebook on Friday.

But the ACLU of Michigan says VanderKooi was off-duty when he contacted ICE.

Attorney Miriam Aukerman of the ACLU says VanderKooi contacted ICE only after seeing an image of Ramos-Gomez on a local TV news broadcast.

"He sees a picture of Jilmar who is visibly, recognizably Latino, has a recognizably Latino name, and he contacts his ICE contact to say, ‘Check his status,'’’ Aukerman says. 

Aukerman says there would have been nothing wrong with VanderKooi reaching out to federal authorities if he suspected the incident was an act of terrorism. 

"But you got to look at the right agency," Aukerman says. "What Captain VanderKooi did here was contact the agency responsible for deportations. It shows that what he was doing was profiling based on the way Jilmar looks, and his name."

The ACLU says it also has a text showing that another GRPD officer directly involved in the investigation of the incident at Spectrum Butterworth did contact someone at the FBI. In a screen shot of a text released by the ACLU, that GRPD officer tells his FBI contact: "Vet, PTSD. But not a FBI issue." 

The ACLU says this text, which was sent hours before VanderKooi reached out to ICE, shows that officers on the scene knew that it was not a terrorist incident, and federal law enforcement didn’t need to be involved.

The emails and documents released by the ACLU also show that Ramos-Gomez had his passport in his backpack when he was arrested. The passport was noted in GRPD’s report from the initial arrest. That report was forwarded to the ICE officers who were asked to check his immigration status.

But the ICE officer who spoke to Ramos-Gomez apparently never looked into the passport.

Credit ACLU of Michigan
Email from ICE deportation officer Matthew Lopez to GRPD, released by the ACLU of Michigan.

“I was able to interview that subject at Kent County this morning, and he is a foreign national illegally in the U.S.” wrote ICE deportation officer Matthew Lopez, in response to the request from VanderKooi. “Thank you for the lead he will be coming into our custody when he is released from his criminal case. Let me or Derek know if you ever have any other good leads.”

Lopez was wrong.  Ramos-Gomez is a U.S. citizen, and the ACLU of Michigan says he had the documents on him to prove it. 

That fact caused confusion at the Kent County prosecutor’s office when an attorney there learned ICE would be taking custody of Ramos-Gomez.

Credit ACLU of Michigan
Kent County prosecutor Daniel Helmer questioned why Jilmar Ramos-Gomez, a U.S. citizen and Marine combat veteran, would be detained by immigration authorities.

“I am confused. Didn’t his property have a US Passport in it?” asked prosecutor Daniel Helmer when he first heard of ICE’s involvement in the case. “And he was a veteran?!”

“Who knows, not sure it was a US passport,” a GRPD investigator wrote back. “I am not sure about the vet thing.”

The ACLU of Michigan says GRPD had the passport the entire time.

"If this officer could not remember what was in the police report, if he couldn't bother to go to the evidence locker and pull out Jilmar's passport – which they had in their possession, which they found on him when he was arrested – if you can't even bother to do that for a member of our community, what does that say about our police department?" Aukerman asks. 

And the passport wasn't the only form of identification Ramos-Gomez had on him during his ordeal. Aukerman says he also had a REAL ID-compliant driver's license on him when he was booked into the Kent County jail, and transferred to the custody of ICE in a facility managed by Calhoun County. That ID, Aukerman says, can only be obtained by people who are lawfully present in the U.S. And Ramos-Gomez's ID showed he was a veteran, according to Aukerman. 

"So you have a failure at the GRPD, you have a failure at Kent County. You have an enormous failure at ICE and you have failure at Calhoun County jail," Aukerman says. "All across the system people are failing because they don’t care."

The ACLU says the GRPD's VanderKooi even mocked Ramos-Gomez in his emails to ICE, including the word “Loco” in the subject line of one email. The family of Jilmar Ramos-Gomez says he suffers from PTSD from his service in the war in Afghanistan.

“During the [internal affairs] investigation, it was determined that the officer used unprofessional language in his interactions with ICE,” wrote GRPD interim police chief David Kiddle, in the statement provided on Friday. “I have addressed this issue with the officer.”

Aukerman says Kiddle's statement doesn't go far enough.

"The idea that you would do that to someone who has fought on the battlefield for our country – that kind of disrespect is – it’s just so appalling to me," she says. "And the idea that we would just let that go with a simple, ‘Oh don’t do that again.’ That’s not how we should treat our veterans. That’s not how we should treat people with disabilities."

Aukerman says the incident, and the conclusions from the internal investigations report show that GRPD can't police itself. She's calling for more civilian oversight of the department. And the incident could spark further controversy at Grand Rapids city commission meetings. 

For now, the ACLU has not filed a lawsuit alleging discrimination by Captain VanderKooi, or the city. But that remains a possibility. And if it does go to court, it won't be the first racial profiling case involving Captain VanderKooi. He was also named in a case involving two separate incidents of alleged racial profiling in the city. That case was taken up by the Michigan Supreme Court last year, where it was sent back to the Michigan Court of Appeals for further argument. 

Listen above to hear Dustin Dwyer explain the latest developments in this story. 

Dustin Dwyer reports enterprise and long-form stories from Michigan Public’s West Michigan bureau. He was a fellow in the class of 2018 at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. He’s been with Michigan Public since 2004, when he started as an intern in the newsroom.
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