Grand Rapids cop returning to job after veteran arrest uproar

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News
Jilmar Ramos-Gomez, an American-born citizen and decorated marine who fought in Afghanistan.

The Grand Rapids Police Department reinstated a police captain Friday who reported a decorated Marine to a federal immigration agency, nearly leading the U.S. citizen to be deported.

Capt. Curtis VanderKooi didn't violate department policy in handling the case involving Jilmar Ramos-Gomez and will return to work Monday, Interim Police Chief David Kiddle said in a statement.

The captain was placed on administrative leave on Feb. 28 when concerns were raised about his actions involving Ramos-Gomez, who was arrested in November after allegedly setting a fire and gaining access to the heliport at Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital in Grand Rapids. 

Kiddle said an initial investigation found "no violation of our department’s impartial policing policy."

"However, we felt it was appropriate to coach Captain VanderKooi following the Internal Affairs' sustained findings of his discourtesy based on unprofessional conduct in an email with Immigration and Customs Enforcement," he said.

Ramos-Gomez, who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, was arrested Nov. 21 and 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.

However, body cam footage of the arrest obtained by The Detroit News through Freedom of Information Act requests shows Grand Rapids police officers were aware of Ramos-Gomez' citizenship status and military service before placing him in custody.

Officers obtained Ramos-Gomez’s passport and concealed pistol license during his arrest and, while questioning him, learned he was a Marine, the footage shows. GRPD personnel in the video do not include the captain who contacted the Department of Homeland Security, the police deparment said.

An ensuing backlash led the sheriff's department to change its policy on voluntarily holding detainees for ICE.

The Michigan Immigrant Rights Center and American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan accused VanderKooi of racial profiling when he contacted FBI and ICE to check on Ramos-Gomez’ legal status.

According to records obtained by the ACLU, VanderKooi was aware of Ramos-Gomez's status hours after his arrest and before he alerted ICE.

VanderKooi, who was off-duty at the time, contacted ICE after seeing a picture of Ramos-Gomez on the TV news, according to the ACLU.

The Internal Affairs Report and 230 pages of police documents obtained through a public records request show VanderKooi routinely contacted ICE requesting that it “check the status” of people held in police custody.

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."

The ACLU and MIRC called VanderKooi's reinstatement outrageous, saying the officer lied when he said the reason he checked on Ramos-Gomez’ status was concern over possible terrorism.

“It is outrageous that the Grand Rapids Police Department would conclude that Captain VanderKooi should return to work when he clearly lied when claiming he asked about Mr. Ramos-Gomez' ‘status’ only because he was concerned about potential terrorism,” said ACLU senior staff attorney Miriam Aukerman.

“In fact, the records are quite clear, Captain VanderKooi regularly coordinates with ICE. We call on the GRPD to release the race and ethnicity for every case where Captain VanderKooi asked ICE to check on a person’s ‘status.’”

Jilmar Ramos-Gomez' passport redacted.

The records obtained by the ACLU also show extensive communications between VanderKooi and ICE regarding the U-visa program, under which nonimmigrant visas are issued to crime victims and their immediate family members.

In one instance, VanderKooi explained to ICE in an email that in his new role as division commander of Investigative Services, he was the “U visa gatekeeper.”

ICE Officer Derek Klifman responded: “Congrats! As always, let me know if you need anything on our end!”

In the following months, VanderKooi and Klifman repeatedly communicated about individuals who came to the GRPD seeking protection as the victims of crime.

“The entire reason Congress created the U-visa program is to ensure that victims of crime feel safe coming forward to report criminal behavior, without fear that they will be reported to ICE,” said Hillary Scholten, MIRC attorney. “The whole idea is that we’re all less safe when individuals are afraid to report crimes, and the data proves that reporting goes down when local police maintain these kinds of relationships.”

“VanderKooi’s actions as documented in these e-mails undermines the entire point of the U-visa program," Scholten said. "His reinstatement in light of all of this evidence endorses this abuse of power and therefore strikes a huge blow to community trust, making good policing harder and our communities less safe.”

VanderKooi was removed from his former position as Investigations Division Commander, Kiddle said.

"We understand the sensitivity of matters involving ICE and the concerns of our community. Upon review of the U-visa certification process, I have determined that it is better served as a function of the Records Unit rather than the Investigations Division," Kiddle said. "The change means Captain VanderKooi will no longer have direct involvement in that process as the Investigations Division Commander.

Kiddle said the department is developing a new policy that defines expectations of how officers interact with federal authorities, including ICE.

"The policy is expected to be completed in the near future," Kiddle said. "At that time, it will be shared with the community and be available on the City’s website along with our other policies."

We are appealing the fact that the internal affairs investigation found no evidence of a violation of improper policing

An appeal by the ACLU and MIRC for VanderKooi's citing the department's internal affairs investigation found no evidence of violation of improper policing will be heard by the Civilian Appeals Board on May 15.

"Since this matter is under appeal, we do not plan to make any further comments on it at this time," the chief said in his statement.
Twitter: @SarahRahal_