5 tips from LA's favorite traffic cop
Here’s how Deputy Elton Simmons keeps public interactions positive, even when he’s writing a ticket
It’s been well over a year now that Deputy Elton Simmons’ captain passed by him and casually asked when he last received a complaint. Simmons sat and thought a moment, then responded, “It’s been a while; I’m not exactly sure.”
His captain couldn’t recall seeing a single report come through in his previous three years at Norwalk station, so he checked Simmons’ file. Nothing.
But it went further than that. Simmons had been patrolling all over Los Angeles for 20 years and had never received a single complaint.
“It’s never something I’ve paid much attention to,” said Simmons. “Not everyone’s going to be happy. You assume some people are going to complain, but you don’t always know about it.”
His captain decided to take advantage of a positive press opportunity and contacted the L.A. Times to tell them about the veteran motorcycle officer at the LA Sheriff’s Department with no complaints.
“I was a little reluctant at first. I’m not into all that attention, but I asked my family what they thought about it. They said, ‘It’s an accomplishment; let people know about it.’”
Simmons imagined a small article would appear in the next day’s paper, and it would be over. Then he got calls from friends and family exclaiming, “El, you’re on the front page of the L.A. Times!” There he was in a giant photo, accompanied by a rather lengthy profile of the cop who managed to charm the city while handing out citations.
“It went everywhere. It took on a life of its own,” said Simmons.
Just when he thought they story had blown over, CBS called him and wanted a live interview. Their camera crews followed him around for a day to find out what it was about Simmons that everyone seemed to like. They concluded that Simmons’ warm, friendly demeanor kept citizens on his good side. But it goes much further than that.
“I’ve always been taught that I’m no better than anybody else. Nobody at home calls me deputy, because that’s not who I am, it’s what I do for a living. I stay in that mindset on patrol.
“I got pulled over a lot when I first moved to California. I wasn’t ever doing anything wrong, but as a black man driving [in the area] I was pulled over often and I could see where this animosity towards police was coming from. When I became a police officer I thought, ‘I’m going to try something different.’”
Rule 1: This isn’t a cop movie
Simmons’ first personal rule of thumb is to steer clear of the cliché police sayings. He avoids, “Do you know why I pulled you over?” and “Do you have any idea how fast you were going?” when approaching a motorist.
“I would say, as if I knew you, ‘Good morning, how are you?’ Now you’re not thinking about anything negative — the first thing you say is, ‘I’m fine,’ and I say, ‘Well listen, the reason I’m stopping you is...
“If I start off with ‘Do you know how fast you were going?’ and they say ‘Yeah, I was driving 45 in a 45,’ then what? Now we’re stuck, and we’ve generated this negative energy right away. I never ask that. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with it, but it’s not me.”
Rule 2: Leave no room for argument
Simmons’ second rule: Show the motorist his laser speed gun before a debate gets underway.
“That’s just a personal thing, the way that I decided to do things,” said Simmons. “If I take it out and show them after they’ve told me their speed and it’s different, I’m calling them a liar, but if I show them first and say, ‘This is how fast you were going,’ and ask for their license and registration, they tend to respond better.”
Rule 3: Never assume
If suspicious of a motorist who appears to be on their phone, Simmons asks himself, “How would I testify to this in court?” before taking any actions. He has to see the phone or other device before making that decision.
Rule 4: Leave the drama at home
Everyone has their bad days — and that day can often start with a speeding ticket. But what if the officer issuing your ticket is the one having the bad day? When asked how Simmons deals with bad days, he said, “We all have them, but they don’t need to interfere with work. You can’t pass your bad mood onto a driver; it’s not their problem.
“If you let that [bad mood] trickle over, it’s just going to cause you more problems. You’ve compounded it by passing your attitude onto the public and it’s going to come right back to you. Soon you have to explain to your sergeant why you said what you did to so-and-so.”
Rule 5: Don’t get roped in
“I hope you get hit. I hope you get run over by a car.” Yes, even the most liked cop in L.A. deals with some relentlessly hateful motorists. The man wishing death upon Simmons had been cited for driving while on his cell phone, and no amount of Simmons’ cool demeanor would calm him down.
“I don’t let negative people draw me into an argument. If they want to argue, I shorten the conversation, hand them their citation, and get out of there. I even explain that they have the right to contest the ticket and explain the whole process to them if they want me to.”
Simmons was on patrol with a partner once and watched the conversation escalate between the other officer and a motorist. After a verbal back-and-forth, the frustrated officer blurted out, “You’re going to piss me off.”
“I told him, ‘You lost the battle right there.’ That’s all she wanted to hear.”
The motorist complained, and sure enough, the officer was written up.
Your work speaks for itself
Simmons was given a commendation by his sheriff for his record lack of complaints before all the media coverage began last year. This month he was awarded Officer of the Month by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund (NLEOMF).
“Every cop says they do it because they want to make a difference, but police work can make you quite cynical. You tend to want to put people in categories. You need to remember that everybody’s the same. I became a cop first and then figured out what I was good at — dealing and connecting with the public. I managed to make a difference in the community in that way.
“I never said, ‘I’m going to go 20 years without a complaint.’ Your work will speak for itself, good or bad.”
After word got out of Simmons’ record, friends and colleagues feared he could kiss that clean history goodbye. Plenty of people recognized him afterward as the cop who was on TV. But a full year has passed, and Elton’s record remains complaint-free.