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Michigan police officer who turned Marine veteran over to ICE is reinstated

By NIRAJ WARIKOO | Detroit Free Press | Published: April 30, 2019

(Tribune News Service) — The Grand Rapids, Mich., police officer who was criticized by civil rights advocates for turning over a Marine veteran and U.S.-born citizen to federal immigration authorities was reinstated to work on Monday after he had been placed on leave for two months.

But the police captain has been stripped of his authority over an immigrant visa program for victims of crime.

Grand Rapids Interim Police Chief David Kiddle said in a statement that police Capt. Curtis VanderKooi did not violate policies when he contacted U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to detain Jilmar Ramos-Gomez, 27, who had been arrested Nov. 21 after suspected case of arson at Spectrum Butterworth hospital.

Kiddle added that his department is working on clarifying its policies on how it interacts with federal authorities on immigration issues.

The case illustrated the intense debate taking place over how much local police should be interacting with ICE in enforcing immigration laws. Capt. VanderKooi said he contacted ICE over concerns about potential terrorism because Ramos-Gomez had entered a heliport area of the hospital.

Ramos-Gomez was born in the U.S. and is a veteran of the Marines who served in Afghanistan. But because he is Latino of Mexican descent, he was profiled racially and was detained by ICE for three days before his mother rescued him, said attorneys with the American Civil Liberties Union Michigan and the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center.

The ACLU blasted the decision by Grand Rapids to reinstate Capt. VanderKooi and said it will hold a news conference on Tuesday with the mother of Ramos-Gomez. They said they have video that shows the police knew Ramos-Gomez was a U.S. citizen with PTSD.

VanderKooi was not the original arresting officer of the Marine veteran, but heard about the case on the news and decided to contact ICE, said the ACLU. VanderKooi was placed on leave Feb. 28 as police launched an internal review.

“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,” ACLU senior staff attorney Miriam Aukerman said in a statement. “In fact, the records are quite clear, Captain VanderKooi regularly coordinates with ICE. We call on the (Grand Rapids Police Department) to release the race and ethnicity for every case where Captain VanderKooi asked ICE to check on a person’s status.”

In a statement, Police Chief Kiddle said, “The investigation has concluded and, based on the evidence, Captain VanderKooi was not in violation of the impartial policing policy. As a result, Captain VanderKooi has been reinstated to full duty effective Monday, April 29.”

Kiddle added that “we understand the sensitivity of matters involving ICE and the concerns of our community.”

VanderKooi was in charge of the U visa certification process, which refers to a program in which some immigrants can get “U visas” to remain in the U.S. if they are crime victims and help police in their investigation of the crimes.

In an email sent to ICE, VanderKooi said he was the “U visa gatekeeper.”

But now, that power has been removed.

“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,” Chief Kiddle said. “The change means Captain VanderKooi will no longer have direct involvement in that process as the Investigations Division Commander.”

Kiddle added he is working on developing new policies. “Our department is sensitive to the nature of citizenship status and we remain committed to developing a new policy that clearly defines expectations for how our officers interact with federal authorities, including ICE. The policy is expected to be completed in the near future.”

According to the ACLU, records they obtained show extensive communication between VanderKooi and ICE on the U visa program

After VanderKooi texted ICE officer Derek Klifman that he is now the “U visa gatekeeper,” Kilfman responded, “Congrats! As always, let me know if you need anything on our end!”

The ACLU said that “in the following months, VanderKooi and Kliffman repeatedly communicate about individuals who have come to the GRPD seeking protection as the victims of crime.”

Hillary Scholten, an attorney with the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center, said that “VanderKooi’s actions as documented in these emails undermines the entire point of the U visa program. 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.”

Grand Rapids City Manager Mark Washington said that because the case might be appealed, he won’t comment on its specifics, but said “this entire matter has given the chief and I (sic) reason to re-examine Police Department policies in regard to interactions with federal authorities. I’ve asked Chief Kiddle to update those policies so the department can be very clear about expectations.”

“As City Manager, I’m committed to ensuring due process in matters of both civil rights and employee rights,” Washington said. “Based on the results of our Police Department’s Internal Affairs Unit investigation, Capt. VanderKooi will be taken off administrative leave and return to regular duty.”

After ICE detained him, Ramos-Gomez was in Kent County jail for three days before his mother and an attorney found out his status. The Grand Rapids officer had described Ramos-Gomez in an email as “loco,” the Spanish word for crazy. Kiddle said in his statement that type of language is “unprofessional.”

In response to community outcry, Kent County Sheriff Michelle LaJoye-Young said in January her department will no longer hold immigrant detainees for federal immigration officials without a judicial warrant.

Her move later was criticized by ICE and the White House for what it called a “sanctuary” policy.

Civil rights advocates intend to appeal the City of Grand Rapids’ decision to reinstate VanderKooi; the case will be heard by a civilian appeals board on May 15.

Ramos-Gomez served in Afghanistan from 2011 to 2014 as a tank crewman and lance corporal. He was awarded the Global War on Terrorism service medal, National Defense Service Medal, an Afghanistan campaign medal, and a combat action ribbon, said the ACLU.

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