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Grand Rapids wraps up discipline for police captain who referred a U.S. citizen to ICE

Dustin Dwyer
Michigan Radio
Grand Rapids Police Department headquarters.

A veteran Grand Rapids police captain was put on a 20-hour suspension, and will have to go through additional training, after the city’s Civilian Appeal Board found he violated department policy.

Captain Curt VanderKooi is the officer who contacted Immigration and Customs Enforcement in the case of Jilmar Ramos-Gomez, a U.S. citizen who was detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and faced possible deportation based on a tip from VanderKooi.
VanderKooi was suspended once during the initial investigation. The city announced this week that VanderKooi has now served a second suspension based on the findings of the Civilian Appeal Board.

“Captain VanderKooi was suspended without pay for 20 hours and has served that suspension,” said police chief Eric Payne, in a statement released by the city. “Captain VanderKooi has also been directed to attend supplemental training. This training will commence within the next 60 days. I am consulting with the Office of Diversity and Inclusion and the Office of Oversight and Public Accountability regarding the specific training that Captain VanderKooi will attend.”

"This discipline was unwarranted and is clearly an attempt to appease a vocal group of activists who made him a scape goat for their own political gain," said the union that represents VanderKooi.

In a statement, the union that represents VanderKooi says it’s “shocked and dismayed” at the city’s treatment of him.

“This discipline was unwarranted and is clearly an attempt to appease a vocal group of activists who made him a scape goat for their own political gain,” wrote Captain Michael Maycroft, president of the Grand Rapids Police Command Officer’s Association.

Maycroft also alleged that the city manager offered to allow an earlier exoneration of VanderKooi to stand if VanderKooi agreed to retire. The city denies that happened.  

“City Manager Mark Washington never contemplated exoneration – nor did he ask for VanderKooi’s retirement,” says Steve Guitar, a spokesperson for the city. “Washington shared his decision … and Union reps were interested in keeping the captain’s record clean. Washington told them that if he resigned, then there would be no disciplinary action to take.”

The union says it has filed a grievance over the issue.

The case that initiated the discipline dates back to last November, when Jilmar Ramos-Gomez was arrested by the GRPD for trespassing onto the helipad area at Spectrum-Butterworth hospital, and for setting a fire.

Officers on the scene found Ramos-Gomez’s passport. They also learned that he is a Marine combat veteran who served in Afghanistan.

VanderKooi was off-duty when he heard about the incident on the news. He contacted an officer at Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“Could you please check his status?” VanderKooi wrote to an officer in the Enforcement and Removal Operations division of ICE.

Ramos-Gomez was eventually held for three days, awaiting a possible deportation, before the federal immigration agency realized the mistake and released him.

Grand Rapids police initially conducted the review of the incident and said VanderKooi did nothing wrong by contacting ICE. It cited him instead for “discourtesy.” One of his emails to the officers at ICE referred to Ramos-Gomez as “loco,” the Spanish word for “crazy." Ramos-Gomez’s family says he suffers from PTSD due to his service in the Afghanistan war.

The ACLU of Michigan asked the city’s Civilian Appeal Board to re-examine the case, and the board found in May that VanderKooi should not have contacted immigration officials.

That sent the case to city manager Mark Washington for a final decision, which then went to Chief Payne to enforce.

Payne says that VanderKooi will no longer serve as a liason to ICE for the department.

The ACLU of Michigan says the department needs to take further steps beyond VanderKooi's discipline.

"[T]he need for accountability goes far beyond just one individual," says Miriam Aukerman of the Michigan ACLU. "[T]hat requires ongoing training, a commitment by leadership not to tolerate such abuses, and changes in policies, which we have started to see in the Department's decision to no longer inquire about immigration status. Accountability, for both Captain VanderKooi and the GRPD, won't undo the harm that was done to Jilmar, but it can help prevent anyone else from suffering as he has.”

Last week, the department announced a new policy on when officers are allowed to ask federal officials about the immigration status of a suspect. The new policy says any request about immigration status will now have to go through the chief’s office. 

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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