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Civilian board says GRPD officer violated policy when he referred U.S. citizen to ICE

Dustin Dwyer
Michigan Radio
From left, Grand Rapids city attorney Anita Hitchcock, GRPD deputy chief Pete McWatters and GRPD officer Chad McKersie sit in front of the Grand Rapids Police Civilian Appeal Board.

A senior Grand Rapids police officer could face disciplinary action over the case of a U.S. citizen who was detained by immigration authorities last year.

Captain Curt VanderKooi was originally cleared by an internal affairs investigation by the GRPD. The department’s investigation said VanderKooi was justified in contacting U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement because he had concerns the original arrest could be related to a terrorist plot.
But on Wednesday, the Grand Rapids Police Civilian Appeal Board overturned the conclusion of the internal affairs report.

VanderKooi was off duty when he first heard of the arrest of Jilmar Ramos-Gomez.

GRPD officers arrested Ramos-Gomez for trespassing onto the helipad area at Spectrum Butterworth hospital in Grand Rapids. Bodycam footage of the arrest shows that officers on the scene quickly learned that Ramos-Gomez is a U.S. citizen and combat veteran.

VanderKooi was at home, and did not contact those officers before he emailed an officer at Immigration and Customs Enforcement to ask about Ramos-Gomez’s status.

Pete McWatters is a deputy police chief at the GRPD. He led the internal affairs investigation. He told members of the Civilian Appeal Board that the department has no clear policy on when officers should contact ICE.

So, he said he couldn’t sustain a finding that VanderKooi made a mistake.  

“What are you going to sustain him for, if there’s no policy that says he can’t do it, for one,” McWatters said. “And then you got to fall to, is it reasonable?”

But members of the review board ultimately disagreed.

"It just gives the feeling of a rogue-type of scenario," said Civilian Appeal Board member Huemartin Robinson, of the GRPD's lack of a policy on contacting immigration authorities.

Huemartin Robinson was one of six board members who voted to overturn the conclusion of the internal affairs report. Robinson said it was the lack of policies and training about contacting ICE that gave him pause.

“I mean it just gives the feeling of a rogue-type of scenario which is more than likely the reason why we’re here today,” Robinson said.

Another board member, Russell Olmsted, pointed out that VanderKooi specifically contacted an officer with the “Enforcement and Removal Operations” branch of ICE, a signal Olmsted said that VanderKooi’s primary consideration wasn’t terrorism.

The Civilian Appeal Board decided to call a special meeting for May 22nd to finalize its findings and put them into writing.

Once that’s done, the case will go to Grand Rapids city manager Mark Washington, who will decide how to discipline VanderKooi.

The union that represents VanderKooi may also get involved.

“We have significant concerns over the way this entire thing has progressed,” said Geoff Collard of the Grand Rapids Police Command Officers Association after Wednesday’s meeting ended.   

The case is also being investigated by the Michigan Department of Civil Rights.

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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