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Grand Rapids police union accuses mayor of “obstruction.” GRPD says it’s an ”opinion.”

Photo by Dustin Dwyer. Statement by Grand Rapids Police Command Officers Association.
Photo of a statement released by the Grand Rapids Police Command Officers Association on Thursday.

This has been a contentious week for officials in Grand Rapids city government. The city is dealing with the fallout over the case of Jilmar Ramos-Gomez, a U.S. citizen and war veteran who was mistakenly detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement based on a tip from Grand Rapids police.

On Thursday, city manager Mark Washington announced a senior command officer, Curt VanderKooi, has been placed on administrative leave while the city’s Labor Relations Office reviews the case.
The union that represents VanderKooi called a press conference late Thursday to respond to the announcement.

But in its statement, the Grand Rapids Police Command Officers Association didn’t just defend VanderKooi.

The union appears to have accused the city’s mayor of committing a crime.

Specifically, a statement from the GRPCOA accuses Mayor Rosalynn Bliss and the current deputy city manager Eric DeLong of “obstruction of justice” for their involvement in stopping the GRPD from making arrests after an immigration rights protest last year.

The GRPCOA statement was read aloud at the press conference by Captain Geoff Collard, the vice president of the union.

“We are here today due to the unprecedented actions currently taking place by the City of Grand Rapids leadership,” Collard began.

Collard said VanderKooi had been cleared by GRPD’s internal affairs investigation into the Jilmar Ramos-Gomez case, and “coached for his use of inappropriate language.” The internal affairs investigation found that VanderKooi violated GRPD policy on courtesy when he used the word “loco” in the subject line of one of his emails to officers at Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Jilmar Ramos-Gomez is Hispanic, and his family says he suffers from PTSD as a result of his service in the war in Afghanistan.

Dozens of community members, many of whom are part of a group called Movimiento Cosecha GR, spoke out at a Grand Rapids City Commission meeting this week, and called for VanderKooi to be fired for his involvement in the incident.

Collard says he’s concerned that opening a second review of VanderKooi’s actions represents a violation of his due process rights.

“Right now, our concern is making sure the rights of one of our members is being upheld,” Collard told reporters yesterday.

But the statement Collard read from the GRPCOA took that defense a step further, and accused the city’s leadership of interfering with a previous investigation involving Movimiento Cosecha GR.

“On May 1, 2018, during a large protest, leaders of Movimiento Cosecha GR intentionally overran a police position for the second year in a row,” the statement reads. “Warrants were sought, sworn to, and issued by a judge for the arrests of two individuals. Shortly thereafter, the Acting City Manager and the Mayor became involved and the warrants were squashed.”

Under Michigan law, obstructing justice is a crime.

The statement, read by Collard, continued.

“Having known about this obstruction of justice, of which the current City Manager has also been notified, we are only left to believe that support for our personnel while acting with great restraint and being overrun by law breaking individuals does not and will not exist.”

This statement is significant because the union chose to include the phrase “obstruction of justice,” rather than simply referring to it as meddling, or interference. Under Michigan law, obstructing justice is a crime.

On Friday, Michigan Radio tried to get clarity on whether the Grand Rapids Police Department stands by the claim that the mayor and current deputy city manager may have committed a criminal act.

The department’s Public Information Officer, Cathy Williams, says current interim Chief David Kiddle did not see the statement before it was released. And she distanced the department from the accusations made by the Command Officers Association.

"Any 'obstruction of justice' comment or accusation was the opinion of the GRPCOA," says the Grand Rapids Police Department.

“Chief Kiddle was made aware that the GRPCOA was planning to host a press conference yesterday, but that was the extent of his involvement,” Williams said in an email to Michigan Radio. “He had no knowledge of the contents of the release, nor did the statement require approval according to our policies due to the fact they were speaking on behalf of the union, not the police department. He respects the union’s right to freedom of speech, and any comments that the Union leaders made were their own.  There have not been nor are there any current criminal investigations for any of the city’s appointed leadership. Any 'obstruction of justice' comment or accusation was the opinion of the GRPCOA.”

Kent County prosecutor Chris Becker also says he never received a referral or request to investigate any alleged “obstruction of justice” by city officials.

“I have not seen or heard anything,” Becker says.

WOOD-TV in Grand Rapids says it obtained documents showing that warrants for the May 1, 2018 incident were approved by city attorney Anita Hitchcock, and then withdrawn.

Mayor Bliss told the news station she wasn’t involved in stopping the warrants.

“I did not, nor would I ever, ask our City Attorney to drop an arrest warrant,” Bliss wrote, according to WOOD.

The city also issued a statement about the allegations.

“We are committed to being a welcoming and inclusive community where individuals are able to communicate their messages and exercise their First Amendment right in a safe and peaceful manner,” the statement says. “In light of the global conversation around immigration at that time, the City Attorney determined it was reasonable and in the best interest of justice to dismiss any charges against the individuals who disregarded instructions by our police officers.”

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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