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Tribute to an ordinary street cop.

Even though I live on the other side of the country, on Friday, February 15, on KCAL, CBS Channel 2 in Los Angeles, my wife and I watched what was billed as one of the largest funerals in LA history. In attendance was California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, LA mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, the mayors of several California cities, and among the political celebrities, scores of police officers from Los Angeles—city and County—and from other cities in California and around the nation. Even a swat team from Australia came to pay their respects. The funeral service was held at the 10,000 seat Crenshaw Christian Center in South LA to an overflow crowd who came to pay their respects to an ordinary street cop The funeral was also broadcast as far away as KTVN CBS Channel 2 in Reno-Tahoe. KNBC and every other TV station in the immediate LA area broadcast the funeral.

The street cop was a 51-year LA SWAT team leader, Randal Simmons who, in his spare time, ministered to street kids in South LA, convincing them that the high they got from Jesus Christ would beat the high they got from cocaine and LSD. Fifteen-plus hundred of them over eight years believed him and switched from being street kids to Glory Kids. Wearing white T-shirts and jeans, they came to pay their respect to a man they loved and deeply respected. Most of the 10 thousand people who came to pay their last respects to Simmons didn't know him. They only knew of him. Randal Simmons was the stuff that real legends are made from.

Around 9 pm PST a man called 911 and told the operator that he had just killed three people. Police responded to an address on the 19800 block of Welby Way in the Valley neighborhood of Winnetka. After securing the outside perimeter of the house, they called in the SWAT team. Knowing there was still a hostage in the house, SWAT command ordered the team to enter shortly after midnight. To distract the man inside the house, one group of SWAT officers went around back, firing at the rear of the house as the entry team hit the front door.

The time was approximately 12:30 a.m. PST on February 7—just about the time that, on the East coast, still half-asleep, I was slowly maneuvering from the bedroom to the kitchen to put on a pot of coffee. While I was thinking about the CPAC conference I would be attending in Washington, DC that morning, Simmons was—about the same moment—worried about how to end the hostage siege without anyone else dying. As the entry team crashed into the house, Edwin Rivera—a high school dropout—popped up from behind a divider wall in the living room and shot Officer James Veenstra, also 51, in the face with a shotgun. As the SWAT team returned fire, Simmons threw himself on his fellow officer to protect him (believing he was adequately shielded by his Kevlar vest). Rivera fired several more shots from behind the low wall dividing the living room from the dining area. At least one bullet hit Simmons in the back of the neck, piercing his brain stem. Simmons died a few minutes later even though news reports of his death were not circulated until around 8 a.m. PST. Veenstra, is married to LAPD Captain Michelle Veenstra. Doctors said that while Veenstra will face several more surgeries over the next few years, his prognosis for complete recovery is good.

The problems in the San Fernando Valley home appears to have stemmed from Rivera's anger over his father, Gerardo, dating a woman whom he brought into the family home. Edwin Rivera believed that his father disrespected the memory of his mother who died nine years earlier. The argument over the girl friend turned violent. When the smoke cleared, Gerardo Rivera, 50, Edgar Rivera, 19 and Andy Rivera, 21, were dead.

The girl friend, identified as Elba Rivera, hid in a closet during the siege. She escaped around 5 a.m. when the SWAT team fired tear gas canisters into the house and then, using an armored vehicle, punched a hole through a wall in the back of the house. Once she was outside, more tear gas canisters were introduced, starting a fire somewhere in the house. The fire caused Edwin Rivera to run from the burning building. He came out shooting and was killed by a SWAT sniper.

Former LA police chief Daryl Gates, who was visibly shaken when he learned that Simmons had been killed, said he had known both Simmons and Veenstra for several years and, before he left the police force, he had tried to promote both of them into leadership jobs in the LAPD but couldn't get them off the street. "You couldn't pry either one of them out of the squad," he said. Gates, who became very emotional talking about Simmons, affectionately remembered that Simmons had been shot during his first year on the LAPD. When he walked into Simmons' hospital room, he said, "Oh, God...you're too big—too tough—to get shot."

Simmons' sister remembered an incident her brother relayed when he was giving foot chase to an armed suspect down a street in South LA. Suddenly the man stopped running and turned, pointing the gun at Simmons. Simmons had not unholstered his weapon. Simmons told his sister Valjean Adams that, at that moment, he thought he was going to die. He shouted out to the man: "Do you know Jesus?" Instead of firing his weapon, the man broke down and began to cry. Simmons witnessed to the man—and arrested him.

Simmons, a tough street cop and SWAT officer, had the gentle spirit of a shepherd. He was a minister who was affectionately called "the Deacon" by fellow officers. From mentoring gang members and playing Santa Claus each year for needy South LA children for more than 20 years, Simmons had a street ministry where he successfully ministered to underprivileged children and drafted them into a group he formed and personally financed—the Glory Kids. The name came from Glory Fellowship Church, the church he and his family attended.

Born into a military family in San Bernardino in 1957, Simmons spent his growing years in Germany, where his father, a USAF Chaplain was assigned. The family returned to New York for a short time before returning to California where Simmons played football at Fairfax High School and, later, at Washington State University. Playing pro football was his dream. Simmons tried out for the Dallas Cowboys, but didn't make the team.

The team he did make loved him. Simmons was a 27-year veteran of the LAPD. His weekdays were consumed with his job on the LAPD. His weekends were dedicated to his real passion—helping street kids in the South LA housing projects. Simmons worked on the UCLA Special Olympics and for several years he coordinated Christmas toy drives at orthopedic hospitals throughout the LA area for patients of poor families. He also handed out thousands of gifts to children each year—many of which he paid for from his own pocket. Simmons' sister, Valjean, said that when it was Randal's birthday, he knew his "kids" in Watts didn't have the money to buy him a gift, so he bought presents for them on his birthday.

Mayor Villaraigosa recently honored Simmons with a Crystal Angel Award (for outstanding community service) during the LAPD's annual True Blue Awards ceremony which honors the heroes in blue. When he received news of Simmons' death, Villaraigosa held a press conference at the crime scene. "It's a sad day in the City of Los Angeles to have lost an officer," he began. "The members of the Los Angeles of the Los Angeles Police Department are deeply saddened this morning having lost a member of their family. Our hearts and prayers go out to the families of these two brave officers." Both Simmons and Veenstra had previously served as bodyguards to protect the mayor's children.

LAPD Chief William Bratton was in Vancouver, British Columbia attending a police chief's conference when he learned of the death of Simmons. He immediately left the conference and flew back to LA where he attended the noon press conference at the hospital where Veenstra had been taken.

In a 2-hour made-for-TV funeral service, the City of Los Angeles honored the fallen officer on Friday, Feb. 15 when his flag-draped coffin arrived at the Crenshaw Christian Center shortly after 11 a.m. Earlier that day, beginning around 8:30 a.m., officers from Simmons' division took turns standing guard at the white hearse that carried his body. Scores of police officers from around the nation stood at attention as LAPD officers carried the coffin through the black glass doors into the church. Simmons' wife Lisa, his son Matthew (who spoke at the service) and his daughter Gabrielle stood silently off to one side as the flag-draped coffin was carried into the church. A bagpipe wailed as the ceremony began. The Glory Kids, wearing identical screen-printed white T-shirts that said "Our Hero" were Randy Simmons' extended family, filed into the church behind Lisa Simmons and her two children.

Five minutes before the TV cameras at the Crenshaw Christian Center began rolling, only the people in Southern California, like his neighbor Mary Bobic, knew about the fate of a gentle street cop in South LA. On Feb. 7, when she saw his photograph on TV, she cried. She and her husband said, "He was a good man." Both realize they will never again see him jogging through the neighborhood, or playing basketball with his son in the front yard of his Rancho Palos Verde home. The Bobic's find it hard to believe that he is gone.

I never met him, and before the funeral service, I never heard of Randy Simmons. But, in watching his eulogy, I had a real sense of loss. I felt what the LA community felt. If someone who never knew him can feel the loss for a man they never met, I can imagine the sense of loss felt by the citizens of Los Angeles. Particularly in a day when cops everywhere are increasingly branded with images of gestopism. While Simmons has been gleefully welcomed home in Heaven, he will be sadly missed by those who knew and cared for him on Earth.

The Los Angeles Police Federal Credit Union has established a trust fund for Officer Simmons. To make a donation, please go to http://www.lapfcu.org and click on the red square entitled LAPFCU Community Corner and [proceed to the bulleted line "Donation Account for Police Officer Randal Simmons." Simmons dedicated his life in preserving the law, saving the people of Los Angeles from the unsavory—and protecting the streets kids from a lifestyle that start them down the road to crime and a lifetime of moving from one prison cell to another. His children have lost their father and his wife has lost her husband. Help them keep their financial dignity. If you would prefer, you can send a check to:

LAPFCU
Blue Ribbon Trust Fund/Officer Randal Simmons
Acct. 2030077—Product Code 54.12
16150 Sherman Way
Van Nuys, CA 91410
(877) 695-2732

 

Just Say No
Copyright 2009 Jon Christian Ryter.
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