Grand Rapids police under fire from civil rights groups for Latino arrests

By: - April 30, 2019 5:28 pm

The Grand Rapids Police Department headquarters. | Nick Manes

Civil and immigrants’ rights groups in Michigan want the state to put the Grand Rapids Police Department under a microscope.

On Tuesday, the Michigan chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Michigan Immigrant Rights Center (MIRC) filed formal complaints with the Michigan Department of Civil Rights (MDCR) over what they allege is a pattern of “racially discriminatory” treatment towards citizens of color, and particularly those of Latino heritage.

One complaint was filed on behalf of Jilmar Ramos-Gomez, an American citizen and Marine veteran who suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The ACLU and MIRC say that documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) show that GRPD officials were aware of the fact that Ramos-Gomez was a U.S. citizen when they requested that federal officials check his immigration status due to a concern of “terrorism.”

Ramos-Gomez was arrested in November 2018 after he gained illegal access to the helipad of a Grand Rapids hospital and started a small fire.

Documents obtained by MIRC and the ACLU show that Capt. Curtis VanderKooi, the GRPD officer who involved the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in Ramos-Gomez’s case, frequently contacted federal immigration authorities even before the Ramos-Gomez incident.

VanderKooi was placed on leave after the incident came to light, but has since been exonerated and reinstated by the department.

A separate complaint deals with GRPD Officer Austin Diekevers, who held an unnamed 15-year-old Latino at gunpoint after the teen and a friend were caught jaywalking on a residential street. According to the complaint, Diekevers’ pulling his weapon was in violation of the department’s Youth Interaction Policy, which requires officers to take age into consideration before drawing a weapon.

ACLU attorneys say the incidents demonstrate the GRPD has a pattern of racial discrimination that requires an independent investigation by the state.

“What both of these cases also show is that the GRPD cannot police itself. The first step to regaining community trust is admitting when things go wrong,” ACLU lawyer Miriam Aukerman told reporters during a news conference on Tuesday.

“You cannot learn from mistakes if you don’t admit when something went wrong. In both of these cases, things went terribly wrong,” Aukerman said. “Yet in both of these cases, the GRPD is saying that the officers involved did everything right. That’s not taking responsibility.”

The ACLU released the complaints, documents obtained via FOIA and an edited video of Ramos-Gomez’s arrest on Tuesday.

Both Aukerman and Hillary Scholten, an attorney for MIRC, told reporters they believe neither of these incidents would have happened if those accused had been white.

Aukerman and Scholten
Miriam Aukerman (L) and Hillary Scholten (R) in Grand Rapids Tuesday. | Nick Manes

A spokesperson for the GRPD did not respond to a request for comment on Tuesday. In a January statement regarding the Ramos-Gomez case, however, the GRPD defended its assertion of a terrorism risk and said that contacting federal officials is done “only when there is a potential risk to the public’s safety, specifically when there is a possible act of terrorism.”

The MDCR last month held two “fact-finding” hearings in Grand Rapids to hear about residents’ experiences with the police department.

Vicki Levengood, a spokeswoman for the MDCR, told the Advance in an email that the department “will review carefully” the materials sent by the ACLU and MIRC on Tuesday. She said the department is in the process of “reviewing all the testimony gathered at our listening sessions in Grand Rapids and will be announcing next steps in the coming weeks.”

While Aukerman and Scholten await those next steps, they told reporters that they believe local law enforcement should be adopting a policy of avoiding contact with federal immigration officials. They argue that the absence of such a policy makes citizens fearful to report crimes.

“We want to make sure that people feel safe and comfortable reporting crime to law enforcement,” Aukerman said. “Ultimately, this is about public safety. This is about making all of our communities safe, citizen communities and immigrant communities. … We all need public safety and that means ending local law enforcement entanglement with ICE.”

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Nick Manes
Nick Manes

Nick Manes is a former Michigan Advance reporter, covering West Michigan, business and labor, health care and the safety net. He previously spent six years as a reporter at MiBiz covering commercial real estate, economic development and all manner of public policy at the local and state levels.