ALTON — For the Alton Police Department, 2015 has so far been a strange year.
Just across the river, crime statistics are skyrocketing, yet crime overall is down in the city of Alton. Communication between the department and citizens is better than it has been in years.
And yet, communication within the department has broken down as internal strife threatens unity. At the center of the firestorm is Chief Jason “Jake” Simmons, who some are calling a bully, others a hero.
Simmons, who does not think of himself as either, says he just wants to focus on keeping Alton safe.
“It’s about breaking down barriers,” Simmons said. “We have to work together to solve our problems, and we solve a lot of crimes now. The community is reaching out to us and that is refreshing to me. That is my focus.
“We have a very professional and caring police department. Every one of these officers in the department cares about this city.”
On May 13, before a packed crowd in City Council chambers (including Alton police officers on both sides of the issue), the council voted 4-3 against reappointing Simmons as police chief. Mayor Brant Walker then exercised his right to reappoint Simmons.
Issues being raised regarding Simmons’ leadership include his handling of an incident and investigation involving officers allegedly disposing of evidence improperly as well as a video which recently surfaced showing an officer allegedly spraying juveniles in a holding cell with an irritating substance.
Simmons and the city also have come under fire for the fact the department is predominately white. Walker says the city reaches out through several channels in an attempt to recruit new officers, and finding black candidates qualified and wanting to serve on the force has proven difficult.
“Since I have been chief, we have done many things, including going to job fairs and churches, printing fliers, and reaching out to other local organizations to help us recruit black officers,” Simmons said this week. “This is a common issue with other police departments on both sides of the river.”
The reappointment meeting
Sgt. Shane Gibbs, who served 28 years with APD and retired earlier this month, addressed the council before Simmons’ reappointment on May 13.
“I spent my entire career being proud of being an Alton police officer,” Gibbs said. “I can no longer stand by, part of a department that is being weakened by Jake Simmons’ style of leadership.”
Gibbs says preferential treatment and political maneuvering have brought morale in the department to an all-time low. He gave the council examples of what he says were promotions and duties given as rewards for backing Simmons, and that has caused resentment within the force.
“I am speaking before the council tonight because I feel I have an obligation to some of my fellow officers who cannot speak for themselves without placing their careers in jeopardy,” he said.
In closing, Gibbs said he is afraid other longtime Alton officers will follow him out of the department.
“If you reappoint Chief Simmons, I am afraid of what this department will look like by the end of the administration, two years from now,” he said. “This department deserves an honest, ethical and committed chief. We have many officers in this department who would fit that bill and serve the city with honor and dignity.”
Simmons also had people who spoke on his behalf, including Denise Melchert of Alton.
“I was a victim of a very violent crime in 2002,” Melchert said. “He was the detective on my case, and I have never been treated with more dignity and respect … I think he is honest, I think he is caring, I think he is compassionate, and I think he is a leader.”
Some members of the city’s black population also spoke in favor of Simmons, saying under his leadership relations between the police and the community have improved.
In a 4-3 vote in favor of not reappointing Simmons as chief, aldermen Carolyn MacAfee, Alice Martin and David Boulds voted for the reappointment while aldermen James Ryan, Michael Velloff, Gary Fleming and Charles Brake voted no.
Fleming has been outspoken on his concern regarding what the city is paying in attorney fees related to the evidence tampering case, which he said has surpassed $100,000 due to Simmons’ rejection of the findings of the internal affairs investigation.
At that point, Walker called on Mayor Pro Tem James Ryan to assume the chair and addressed the council.
“I hereby exercise my rights as mayor to retain Jake Simmons as police chief,” he said. “I have no intention of removing him from office, nor do I have any intention of nominating anyone else for the position.”
Title 3, Chapter 3, Section 2A of the Alton city code states that “the chief of police shall continue to serve until removed by order of the mayor or until his successor shall be appointed and qualified, whichever shall occur first.”
Following the vote, Simmons released a statement regarding the meeting.
“Obviously I am disappointed in the vote tonight,” Simmons said. “This vote is about one thing — politics. More specifically, it’s about the ‘good old boy’ politics of Alton that so many people have grown so tired of.”
He also said he plans to continue on the path he started when he became chief.
“The Alton Police Department is a wonderful agency with many professional officers who are dedicated to the betterment of our city,” he said. “My goal is to work toward public unity and improve police relations within the city of Alton.”
Simmons has served with the APD for 22 years, spending four years before that with the St. Clair County Sheriff’s Department as well as an officer for Benld. He has served as chief since May 2013.
On May 12 (the night before Simmons’ reappointment), KMOV News 4 aired a video given to the station by Alton NAACP President James Gray that showed two juveniles in a holding cell being sprayed with an irritating substance, allegedly by an Alton police officer. Simmons confirmed the video was authentic.
The incident, involving two area juveniles and Pfc. Vincent Warlick, occurred on Jan. 26. Simmons said the video was brought to his attention on March 17, and received final reports on the incident during the first week of May.
On May 15, Simmons announced an unnamed officer was being placed on administrative leave pending the outcome of an internal affairs investigation in relation to the video.
“The current policy regarding the reporting of use of force incidents contains no deadline,” Simmons said in a statement. “This is going to change. I, in consultation with my staff and legal counsel, have begun the process to revise all policies to ensure all issues are reviewed and resolved in a more defined, more timely manner.”
No complaint had been filed in the incident, and Simmons said as a result the staff officer reviewed the tape in March rather than January.
The process to change the policy has already begun, according to the department.
Walker said he stands by the chief’s handling of the incident and is confident the matter will be dealt with severely.
“What I don’t understand is why someone from within the Alton Police Department would violate police department policy and the city’s red flag rules in order to improperly release such a video,” Walker said during the May 13 meeting. “That, in and of itself, is a serious offense. What happens when an officer decides to take it upon themselves to release a piece of evidence that causes a major felony case to be compromised?”
Walker says the video’s release to the media prior to the conclusion of an internal affairs investigation further reduces morale within the department.
While addressing the council, Gibbs also spoke about the video.
“It is a shame there has been a failure to take any action at this point,” Gibbs said. “I also regret that this video was released to the public in this manner. I am opposed to anything that would discredit our department in the eyes of the public.”
The chief of detectives is investigating the incident and Simmons says proper discipline will be administered at the conclusion of the investigation.
“The kind of behavior found in the video will not be tolerated, and proper discipline will be administered upon completion of the internal affairs investigation,” Simmons said. “Such behavior is not reflective of the professional, dedicated staff of the Alton Police Department.”
Alton’s crime statistics
In 2014, the department has seen a 6 percent overall drop in crime. While arson, assault and battery, and sex offenses saw an increase in the number of incidents, robbery, burglary and theft dropped.
“We are working closely with scrap yards in Alton, and the officers are canvassing the neighborhoods,” Simmons said. “We don’t just take a report; the officers go door to door and look for descriptions of suspects or vehicles. We also communicate with area Realtors who let us know what houses for sale to be keeping an eye on.”
The focus for 2015
For the remainder of the year, Simmons said he would like to bring some of the department programs back that have received a positive response from the community, including more amnesty days, increased bike patrols and the Coffee with a Cop events, set to return this summer.
He said heavy school patrols and participation with youth programs are consistently a priority. Future plans also include a mentoring program with students interested in a career in law enforcement.
“We are out there all the time giving back to the community,” Simmons said. “We are here for them.”
Among the examples of Simmons’ leadership, Pfc. Emily Hejna cited his response and interaction with the community to help prevent unrest in Alton during the protesting and rioting in Ferguson, Mo. She says she feels the department is on the right track.
“I have been an Alton police officer for eight and a half years,” Hejna said during the May 13 meeting. “In that time, I have seen initiatives and decisions that originate from the office of the chief with which I have both agreed and disagreed.
“There are officers who vehemently oppose the reappointment of Chief Simmons. There are others, including myself, who adamantly support his reappointment. The majority, however, seem to feel this debate is frivolous, wanting to focus on doing their jobs and protecting this great city rather than being pulled in a politicized tug of war.
“I am proud that even with our internal issues, our officers are maintaining and creating new relationships within the community. Part of that stems from the leadership of the chief.”