It was a funeral befitting a great man: 10,000 mourners packed into the biggest church they could find, poignant eulogies, glorious music, a grand procession through a grateful city to a final resting place amid rolling hills and a view to the sea, all of it carried live on television. Sadly, it was only after Randy Simmons was killed that most of us came to learn just how great he was.
Simmons was 51 when he died. An officer with the Los Angeles Police Department’s SWAT team, he was at home with his wife and two children on the night of Feb. 6 when the call-up came. Patrol officers had responded to a home in West Valley Division after a man called 911 and claimed to have shot three people. The suspect was still inside and refusing to surrender, and the officers at the scene believed some of the victims might still be alive.
Before leaving home, Simmons gathered his family for a prayer, not only for his safety and that of his fellow officers, but also for the man he would seek to arrest. It was a familiar ritual for all of them. Simmons had been a cop for 27 years and a member of the SWAT team for 20. His children had grown to be teenagers without ever having seen him do anything else. Dad’s cell phone rings, he goes out and gets the bad guy, he comes home. Though a SWAT officer had died in a training accident in 2000, none had ever been killed on a call-up in the unit’s 40-year history.
So off Simmons went on a code-three run from his home in Palos Verdes to the incident command post in the San Fernando Valley. This time he did not come home.
As I dressed for the funeral last Friday, I considered some grim numbers: More than twenty LAPD officers have been murdered since I joined the department; many others have died in traffic accidents and other mishaps. And of course there have been cops from other departments in Southern California who have similarly laid down their lives. I have attended most of their funerals, and inside my locker I keep some small remembrance of each one, a program from the service or a prayer card or a photograph. I keep all these mementos tucked away inside my uniform hat, which I bring out only for occasions such as this.
All of those funerals were sorrowful but inspiring occasions, making me at once fearful of being a cop but also immensely proud. Friday’s service evoked new heights in both emotions, starting well before I entered the church. Vermont Avenue is one of the widest streets in Los Angeles, and when I turned onto it I saw hundreds of police cars lined up for blocks in the northbound lanes, as the cops who had arrived in them streamed in long blue columns toward the church.
The turnout from the LAPD was unprecedented in my memory, but even more remarkable was the presence of so many cops from other departments. There were police officers from all over California, some of whom had made nine- and ten-hour drives to be there. And there were cops from New York, Massachusetts, Illinois, Alaska, and too many other places to be listed here, many of whom had traveled at their own expense just for the privilege of honoring a man most had never met or even heard of until his death.
But it wasn’t only police officers who turned out. At the entrance to the church grounds on Vermont were two ladder trucks from the Los Angeles Fire Department, their ladders reaching skyward with a huge American flag suspended between them. And as the crowd walked toward the church they filed past the LAFD’s senior command staff, all of whom stood solemnly at attention for as long as it took all those thousands to pass.
Inside the church, a bit of spontaneous applause broke out near one of the entrances, with the rest of us craning for a look at what had prompted it. The applause swept across the church, and soon all 10,000 people were on their feet as they realized that Officer Jim Veenstra was taking his place among the mourners. Like Randy Simmons, Veenstra had been shot in the face that night in their attempted rescue, yet there he was, in uniform and standing tall with his wife Michelle, an LAPD captain, at his side.
There was an uncomfortable but revealing moment during the service when LAPD chief William Bratton rose to speak. He first addressed some of the political dignitaries in attendance, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, and others, and last on his list was former LAPD chief Daryl Gates, under whose leadership the SWAT concept was developed. Gates had been invited to sit in a place of honor with Simmons’s colleagues, and at the mention of his name the assembled cops were on their feet and applauding in appreciation for the man who even now, 16 years after he retired, remains an iconic and much beloved figure to the officers he once led.
Chief Bratton handled the moment graciously, waiting for the crowd to settle before continuing with his remarks. But it was interesting to note the reaction of some of the political types who were seated together not far from me. Some refused to stand or even feign appreciation for Gates, illustrating the divide between the city’s cops and its politicians. Even some of the LAPD brass declined to stand, apparently fearful that doing so might brand them as disloyal to Bratton and therefore unfit for further promotion. I needn’t embarrass any of them by identifying them here; word of the incident has already swept through the department. But they should know how petty and childish they looked in front of the men and women they purport to lead.
But for that bit of awkwardness, the service was an uplifting celebration of Simmons’s life. Among the speakers were one of Simmons’s former Washington State football teammates, his sisters-in-law, his sister, and, most movingly of all, his son Matthew, who at 15 bears a striking resemblance to his father, and who somehow found the strength to tell all those people how much his father meant to him and how much he will miss him.
When the service concluded, the hearse bearing Simmons’s casket led a miles-long procession to Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City. Much of South Los Angeles had to be brought to a halt to accommodate the stream of cars, with Vermont and Slauson Avenues shut down for hours until the last one had passed. Fire crews from across the L.A. area lent themselves to the effort by helping to control traffic along the way. There were fire engines from Pasadena, Burbank, Montebello and many other cities parked at intersections along the route, their crews snapping salutes as the hearse passed.
Thousands of people lined the streets along the way, some waving flags, others holding pictures of Simmons or hand-lettered signs expressing their sympathy. The route took us through some of the most crime- and gang-infested areas of the city, but the outpouring of support was a reminder that, even in those neighborhoods, most of the people are as law-abiding and decent as those living anywhere else.
At the cemetery, thousands of cops lined up on the hillside in great silent ranks. A lone bagpiper played “Going Home” as the casket was borne to the grave by six of Simmons’s fellow SWAT officers. Taps was played, and four LAPD helicopters swept in, one of them peeling off in the “missing man” formation as they flew overhead. Simmons’s daughter Gabrielle released a single white dove which circled the cemetery before the rest of the flock was released to join it for the flight back home.
The graveside service ended as the sun dipped into the ocean, somehow a fitting sight for the police officers who gave Simmons a final salute before being dismissed. And though we had gathered that morning in a great unity of purpose, as night fell we all went our separate ways to return to our work . . . and to wait until we meet again, as we surely will some day.
“Jack Dunphy” is the pseudonym of an officer with the Los Angeles Police Department. The opinions expressed are his own and almost certainly do not reflect those of the LAPD management.