The Valdosta Daily Times
He says he applied for the thrills and stuck it out because of the people, but now, 41 years after graduating from the police academy and 17 years after restructuring the Valdosta Police Department, Police Chief Frank Simons says he's set to retire at the start of the year.
“It quickly became apparent to me that most of what police officers do is help people solve problems and keep our communities safe,” says Simons. “I've said this many times, but I've never been able to stand a bully.”
Simons grew up in Columbus, Ga., attended Ga. Southwestern University and joined the force in 1971 before rising from assistant to director of ABAC’s police academy. Simons spent the next eight years managing Perry’s police department and his wife Cathy had earned her tenure at a college in Macon near the end of that stretch.
When City Manager Larry Hanson accepted his job back in 1995, he placed his bet on Simons to restore order to the city’s troubled police department. Simons promised to polish up the department’s reputation and to help it receive national recognition in under five years. It took four.
In the midst of controversy and low citizen confidence in the police force, Simons says he focused his efforts on three areas:
Hiring and human resources
Simons says he increased the number of officers, while tightening their hiring practices at the same time. He admits that the police department had some serious issues when he came in.
“Care in your hiring process is vital to the operation of your department,” says Simons. “I've often said a police department can never be better than the people it hires. If you don't hire quality people, you can't expect a quality department.”
Many of the legacy staff just needed a little guidance because they ultimately wanted to do the right thing, Simons stated. You have to have the right attitude and right person to be a police officer, says Simons as he laments officer compensation.
“I don't understand why we pay police officers the way we do,” says Simons. “You take a person who’s willing to go out and expose themselves to danger. Then we expect them to know something about any and everything, and deal with the best and worst of the community within 20 minutes. And on top of that, we expect them to do it impartially and with a good temperament.”
Education and training
The department returned its focus to education and skills training, once Simons arrived. Good training is what keeps you out of litigation, Simons says.
“I've found that the majority of conflicts are a result of poor communication,” says Simons. “When you’re recruiting officers, you want the people who have the widest scope of knowledge possible so that he or she can understand the issues they may face. And if you're dealing with someone from a culture unfamiliar to you, then you're not fully equipped to help that person solve their problems.”
Simons recalls a story in which a foreign-born citizen stopped by the Perry police department to complain about officers who had barged into the man’s house the previous morning, wrestled the man into submission and cut off a hallmark of his gender. After determining that the man did not mean this literally, Simons says he realized the man was trying to say that officers had emasculated him when they arrested the man for battering his wife.
“We've tried to provide our guys with the best training and equipment to do their jobs,” says Simons. “Over half of getting the job done is having the right tool or knowing what the right course of action is. It really helps to have law enforcement officers who understand that everyone that didn’t grow up like them,” said Simons. “There are places in this city where, if I’d grown up there, my mentality may be different. Who knows, I might have become a thug.”
Ethics and policy
In 1999, Simons’ promise to Hanson was realized and the Valdosta Police Department received accreditation from the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies. Simons and his staff had re-codified VPD policies and received affirmation from the CALEA that the department was on the right track.
“The accreditation isn't something that we just put on paper and posters, it's something that we live by,” says Simons. “Our guys have policy books in their desks and cars, so they don't have to wonder about any of our guidelines. The majority of our guys try hard to adhere to the rules. We’ve only haven’t had to discipline many officers over the years, because most dread a written reprimand.”
Ethics go hand and hand with VPD policy, says Simons. He says he has worked hard to eradicate the use of epitaphs and slurs, among many other elements of grooming ethical and professional representatives of the law.
“We needed a work force that understood the people they'd be working with,” Simons says. “If you can rationalize calling someone else something that classifies as non or sub-human, then you can justify mistreating that person. We expect you to extend that same level of courtesy to everyone from the bank managers and city leaders down to the town's stinkiest drunks.”
The department faces re-evaluation for accreditation each year, says Simons. And each of the last three times the department has gone through the CALEA evaluations, Simons says the department has passed with honors and has received a status of “distinguished accreditation.”
Simons’ philosophies helped restore the public’s faith in the city’s police department. But he concedes that his successes may not have been so if not for the support of the citizens and city leaders who share his vision of a safer Valdosta.
“I don't know of a police chief that has had a better relationship with his or her elected officials and city manager than I have. In the 17 and a half years that I've been here, I've never had an elected official attempt to interfere in any of our cases. Everyone can't say that.”
Simons says he has no plans of participating in the search for his successor, but says he’s willing to help if the city asks. When asked what he’ll do with the weeks that stand between him and retirement, Simons referred back to his first press conference years ago where The Times’ now-assistant editor, Dean Poling, queried the new chief on his first month’s plans.
“Larry Hanson was there and we were still getting to know each other,” says Simons. “So I told Dean the first thing I had planned to do would be locate all of the first floor bathrooms. So what am I going to do as I leave, you ask? I guess I could make sure they're all flushed and cleaned now.”
Simons says retirement will afford him more time to spend with Cathy, who he says retired in 2004. He says her longings for more time together played a role in his retirement decision to some degree, but reasons that it’s simply time.
“The city of Valdosta has been very good to me,” says Simons. “I think what citizens want to know is that you're committed to doing the right thing and responding. I tell people all the time that if you're in a job where you're tasked with making the final decision, the best you can hope for is that people will believe you were fair in your actions.”