The slain LAPD lawman acted out of a sense of duty beyond his badge — a duty to be of service to the people around him.
February 18, 2008 In the volatile world of the street, cops haven’t always been the good guys. They’ve been known to apply brute force as a form of justice in the shadowy confines of downtown alleys and to quell peaceful protests with swingin truncheons. We’ve seen them get away with videotaped crimes against civilians, and we’ve seen their militaristic units turn into undisciplined mobs. Instances of racism and sadism once stained cops’ badges, making a mockery of a call to respect and support them when their brothers were killing black people in the South and challenging the right of peaceful assembly in the North.
But things have changed. It doesn’t take a cultural anthropologist to see new attitudes emerging in the police departments of Southern California, including L.A. Racial and ethnic diversity is obvious in their ranks and grievous errors of conduct are rarely excused. Do moments of brutality still emerge among the men and women committed to protect and serve? Of course. Even the best of training doesn’t always mute the instincts of those who don’t deserve to wear the blue uniform in the first place.
But for every bad cop who punches out a guy on the ground or shoots before he thinks, there’s always a man like Randal Simmons. He has come to symbolize what cops are all about. Simmons was the 51-year-old SWAT team veteran whose unit, because they thought that lives were imperiled inside a house under siege, joined fellow officers in raiding the building. Simmons was shot dead by a mentally disturbed man who had already killed his father and two brothers on that violent day in Winnetka, who was then himself brought down by a police sniper.
Much has been made of the fact that Simmons was the first officer killed in action in the 40-year history of the nationally respected LAPD SWAT team. The term “hero” has been applied many times in respect to his devotion to a duty that ended his life. Some say that he deliberately jumped in front of a wounded partner to prevent the man from being shot a second time. The partner, James Veenstra, survived a bullet in the face. Simmons is a hero either way. And if a more thorough investigation proves that he sacrificed his own life to save another, then the obvious protocol for a higher heroism applies. But there’s a more subtle application to the term too. A policeman knows that every time he enters a house under siege, his life is at risk — but he does it anyhow. We can assume that he does it because of his training, because of his sworn oath or because he’s just one of those guys who gets off on danger. But I think there’s another level to the ultimate risk: He does it because it’s part of a deeper instinct to save someone.
That was Randal Simmons. He was more than the sum of his duties. Simmons’ life beyond the badge and gun was dedicated to the service of others. He loved children, and bought the poor kids of South-Central L.A. presents on his own birthday. He co-hosted a Special Olympics and, as a minister for Carson’s Glory Christian Fellowship International church, drove his “glory van” to troubled housing projects, doing what he could to help the young. There is a kind of heroism in a life like that, an assertion of goodness without trumpets. Simmons did what he did not because of the recognition he received, but because it was the right thing to do. His chief knew that. His colleagues knew that. His friends knew that. His neighbors knew that. And his family knew that. He leaves a wife of 20 years and two teenage children to mourn his death and celebrate his life.
I write of him today because there is a need to consider the qualities possessed by those we rely on but rarely know. Simmons represented the best of the men and women who patrol the streets and who respond to cries for help with a commitment beyond the requirements of the uniform. There remains in the human spirit an infrequently displayed inclination to rise above survival and risk everything for the sake of another. In the landscape of our dreams, we all wish for heroes who are both brave under fire and kind to little children. If there aren’t enough of those who compare to Randal Simmons, at least there was him, and perhaps a few others. They were the ones of whom the poet Stephen Spender wrote: Born of the sun, they traveled a short while toward the sun, and left the vivid air inscribed with their honor. So doing, Randal Simmons, by his life and by his deeds, ennobled us all. Play taps.