Civil rights groups: Ex-Marine detained by ICE was racially profiled

Francis X. Donnelly
The Detroit News
Jilmar Ramos-Gomez

Civil rights groups on Monday accused a Grand Rapids police supervisor of engaging in racial profiling when his reporting of a former Marine to a federal immigration agency nearly got the U.S. citizen deported.

An internal police investigation had determined the actions by Capt. Curt VanderKooi were prompted by terrorism fears, but the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center and American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan took issue with that finding.

Jilmar Ramos-Gomez was held for three days at a detention center 70 miles away in Battle Creek before a lawyer working for the family provided proof of citizenship

If VanderKooi was worried about possible terrorism by the Marine veteran, the supervisor would have contacted the FBI, said the civil rights groups. Instead, he contacted the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

In fact, a Grand Rapids sergeant had already contacted the FBI, telling the federal agency it wasn't a "FBI issue," according to public records obtained by the civil rights groups.

"This was racial profiling, pure and simple," said Hillary Scholten, an attorney with the immigrant rights center.

The police, who announced results of the internal investigation Friday, declined to add anything more on Monday, including the name of the captain involved. The Detroit News learned his name from documents obtained by the civil rights groups.

On Friday, interim Police Chief David Kiddle said the internal probe determined VanderKooi had acted correctly.

"The police officer who reached out to ICE did so based solely on the nature of his (Ramos-Gomez's) actions," said Kiddle. 

The reporting of the Hispanic Ramos-Gomez to ICE in December began a string of errors where the federal agency wrongly believed he was in the country illegally and held him for three days for possible deportation.

Ramos-Gomez, who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, had been arrested after allegedly starting a fire at a Grand Rapids hospital and walking onto its roof.

VanderKooi learned about the Nov. 21 arrest from watching a TV news report, according to the civil rights group. He then contacted an ICE officer, asking him to check Ramos-Gomez's "status."

The civil rights groups suggested VanderKooi's actions were influenced by Ramos-Gomez's Hispanic name and appearance.

Just hours after the arrest, and before VanderKooi alerted ICE, police Sgt. Gregory Griffin told the FBI the incident wasn't a federal matter.

"Vet, PTSD. But not a FBI issue," Griffin wrote in a text, according to screenshot obtained by the civil rights groups.

On Nov. 26, VanderKooi emailed a copy of the police report to ICE. The subject line of the email referred to Ramos-Gomez as "loco," which is Spanish for "crazy."

VanderKooi's actions and language show he was unduly influenced by the former Marine's race, said Miriam Aukerman, a senior staff attorney with the Michigan ACLU.

"We can't begin to restore community trust until the (police) recognize this for what it is: racial profiling compounded by ridicule of a person who experiences (PTSD) as a result of his service to our country," she said.

In his statement Friday, which didn't refer to VanderKooi by name, Kiddle said he had spoken with the supervisor about his use of "unprofessional language."

The two civil rights groups had obtained copies of the email and other material through a public records request.

Those public records also shed more light on the mistakes made over Ramos-Gomez's citizenship.

ICE has said Ramos-Gomez told its officers he was a foreign national illegally in the U.S., but the civil rights groups said the assertion could have been easily disproved.

When the former Marine was arrested, he had several forms of identification on him, a Michigan driver's license, a U.S. passport, a military ID card and U.S. Marine tags, said the civil right groups.

In fact, the police report describing his arrest refers to his passport.

When a police detective later forwarded correspondence with ICE to a prosecutor, the prosecutor immediately asked why the federal agency was involved in the case, according to records.

"I am confused," asked Dan Helmer, an assistant Kent County prosecutor, according to a copy of the email obtained by the civil rights group. "Didn't his property have a US passport in it? And he was a veteran?!"

The detective said he wasn't sure about the passport or veteran status.

The civil rights groups criticized the police for not following up on those issues as ICE was considering deporting Ramos-Gomez.

The police easily could have confirmed the former Marine's citizenship by getting his passport, said Aukerman.

"Even when officers were specifically reminded that Mr. Ramos-Gomez is a U.S. citizen, they did not bother to check the evidence locker for his passport," she said.

Kiddle said Friday the Police Department was using its experience in the case as a chance to review its contacts with ICE, evaluating its policies and procedures.

VanderKooi was the department's liaison with ICE.

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Twitter: @francisXdonnell