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Slain SWAT officer took duty to heart

By Jill Leovy
The Los Angeles Times
Officer Down: Police Officer Randal (Randy) Simmons

LOS ANGELES — For Randal Simmons, who was killed in a San Fernando Valley police standoff overnight, being an officer was more than just a job. The calling extended into the rest of his life -- from mentoring youth in South Los Angeles to charity efforts.

"He was what you would consider a professional police officer," said close friend and former police academy classmate Capt. James Craig. "Passionate about the job, and passionate about making a difference in the community."

Simmons, 51, had tried as a young man for a career as a professional football player, and was active in police department sports leagues, playing for the "Centurions," LAPD's football club, and running in charity races. "He was a very outgoing guy. Always smiling, always a kind word for everyone," said LAPD Deputy Chief Charlie Beck.

On the job, the married father of two -- a son, 15, and daughter, 13 — stood out for his kindness and steady temperament. Simmons, originally from New York City, was the son of a minister, according to his former partner, retired LAPD Det. Gregory Grant. Simmons graduated from Fairfax High School in 1974, where he played varsity high school and ran varsity track, according to Los Angeles Unified School District officials.

He then studied criminology at Washington State University, where he played cornerback for the football team in 1976, 1977 and 1978. His final year, he was a varsity starter, playing as No. 17, according to the university's sports information office.

While Simmons was the strongest guy on the team, able to bench-press more than 400 pounds, his friend and college teammate Greg Sykes remembers with a laugh that Simmons "couldn't catch a ball to save his life."

Teammates would joke that the ball would hit Simmons anywhere but his hands, Sykes said.

After college, Simmons was briefly a Dallas Cowboys hopeful, friends said. But his pro-football dreams were cut short by an injury, and he turned to police work. In 1981, he was assigned as a probationary officer to LAPD's Pacific Division, one of three African American probationers in the region at that time, Craig said.

Later, he worked LAPD's South Bureau gang squad, known then as "CRASH."

Grant said Simmons was a physically imposing officer — "an Adonis" — known for his superb physical fitness, for connecting with people and for maintaining his calm. Size alone was not the reason he had so few confrontations on the job. "We just talked to people. We had them laughing on the way to jail," Grant said. "He was really able to communicate with people — able to extract information from unwilling people. He made them comfortable, and put humanity into it."

When he encountered resistance, he appealed to people's sense of right and wrong, Grant said. Only the most pathological suspects did not respond, he said.

When Simmons was later promoted to work in SWAT, considered one of the department's most elite and highly coveted jobs, his calm negotiating style stood out in standoffs with suspects in high-pressure hostage situations.

Rick Massa, Simmons' longtime SWAT team partner and colleague, recalls Simmons' cool head under fire during a hostage negotiation in 1992.

Officers were attempting to rescue a maid held captive by religious zealot Rollen Frederick Stewart at the Hyatt Hotel near Los Angeles International Airport. Stewart was better known as "Rainbow Man," notorious for the multicolored wigs he would wear on the sidelines at major sporting events while brandishing signs with Bible verses.

Working as the lead hostage negotiator, Massa said he couldn't get through to Stewart, who was quoting scripture the officer didn't know much about. So he called on Simmons, a devout man well-versed in the Bible. Although he was fighting the flu, Simmons chatted with "Rainbow Man" for hours, dissecting the meaning of various Biblical passages from morning through the early evening — and buying officers precious time.

"They talked for hours, back and forth, about religion, quoting Bible verses," Massa said. SWAT officers were able to formulate a plan and rescue the hotel employee. "He brought that kind of expertise to the job," said Massa.

One of his assignments in SWAT was as contact person for charity efforts, including an annual toy drive at Los Angeles Orthopaedic Hospital south of downtown Los Angeles.

"He was a really great guy. Not only incredibly friendly, but really interested in being of service. You could tell," said Jeffrey Klein, former head of fundraising for Los Angeles Orthopaedic Hospital, now with Providence Hospital.

Simmons' strong Christian faith was a huge part of his life: he was often called upon to deliver the benediction at SWAT officer gatherings, Massa said. Friends recalled him gently prodding them to go to church, to "get right with God." He prodded them about health matters too, telling them to drink soy milk, and offering workout pointers.

He was involved in helping his congregation construct a gymnasium, Massa said, and would head straight to church after working out. And he worked off-hours mentoring youth in housing projects in South Los Angeles, Craig said. "He was so concerned with at-risk youth," Craig said.

With 20 years on the job, he could have easily retired, colleagues said, but chose not to because he liked the work. At the same time, he was a devoted family man, with a marriage that remained strong despite a profession notorious for destroying marriages, Grant said.

Grant recalled Simmons on his wedding day, some decades prior. The athletic, confident, muscular police officer had a whole different mien at the altar, he said. "He was trembling, tears running off his chin," Grant recalled.

He is survived by his wife, his two children, his parents and three sisters.

Copyright 2008 The Los Angeles Times

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