Patrolling Watts one day years ago, Los Angeles Police Capt. James Craig spotted a van in the street with a crowd of children gathered around.
The van's occupant looked familiar. It was his former partner, Officer Randal Simmons, a rising star, in plain clothes and off-duty, doing what few other cops would do: He was trolling the same neighborhoods where he usually made arrests, looking for children to mentor as part of a church ministry.
As Craig watched, he noticed that Simmons knew the children's first names, their personal struggles and their problems with gangs.
It was a typical effort by an officer for whom police work 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.
"Passionate about the job and passionate about making a difference in the community" is how Craig described him.
Simmons had been on the police force 27 years, 20 of them in SWAT, when he was mortally wounded early Thursday morning after he and other SWAT team members broke through the front door of a San Fernando Valley home where a gunman had killed family members. Police said they entered the home believing wounded people might be inside and others could be at risk of being shot and killed.
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, the 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 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 ran varsity track, Los Angeles Unified School District officials said.
He studied criminology at Washington State University, and wore No. 17 as a cornerback in 1976, 1977 and 1978. His final year, he was a varsity starter, according to the university's sports information office.
Although 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 the LAPD's Pacific Division, one of three African American probationers in the region at that time, Craig said.
Later, he worked in the South Bureau's 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.
Simmons also worked as an officer in the LAPD's 77th Street Division, the high-crime precinct that covers Hyde Park and part of the Crenshaw area, and as a vice officer in the Southeast Division in Watts in the 1980s, Craig said. During that stint, Simmons was shot and suffered a minor injury, Craig said. When Simmons was promoted to SWAT, 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, recalled Simmons' cool head under fire during a hostage negotiation in 1992.
Officers were trying to rescue a maid held captive at an airport hotel by religious zealot Rollen Frederick Stewart, better known as Rainbow Man, for the multicolored wigs he wore at televised sporting events. Massa said he couldn't get through to Stewart, so he called on Simmons.
Simmons chatted with Stewart for hours, dissecting the meaning of various biblical passages from morning through the evening, buying officers precious time to formulate a plan and rescue the hotel employee.
One of his assignments in SWAT was to be the contact person for charity efforts, including an annual toy drive at Los Angeles Orthopaedic Hospital south of downtown.