Q&A with new state police district commander
During his 23 years in law enforcement, Jamal Simington has done everything from working undercover to catch drug dealers to solving homicides.
But the 41-year-old Bourbonnais father of two is just as happy spending his free time watching his 14-year-old son play basketball and his five-year-old daughter do gymnastics.
After being named the new commander for Illinois State Police District 10, where he'll oversee 45 state troopers spanning nine counties, Simington sat down with The News-Gazette this week to talk about the war on drugs, his love of the Cubs and more.
Q: How did you first get interested in a career in law enforcement?
A: It was in the family. My uncle, Herbert Pope, worked for the Kankakee County Sheriff's Department. Being around him gave me exposure to the field of law enforcement. He inspired me, and was a big influence on my life. As I was growing up, I also developed some friendships and relationships with police officers. I have always been attracted to the law enforcement community and public service.
Q: Where did you go to high school?
A: I went to St. Anne Community High School in St. Anne, where I played baseball and basketball. Unfortunately, they did not have football. I enjoy sports, and I have always been athletic. After high school I went to Kankakee Community College, where I studied criminal justice enforcement and received my associate's degree.
Q: I understand you also served as a volunteer firefighter. How did that come about?
A; My Uncle Herbert had been a firefighter, so when I was old enough I joined the Pembroke Volunteer Fire Department. First I was a cadet, and I ended up becoming a full-fledged firefighter. I ended up going to school to get my emergency medical technician certification. Over my years in law enforcement, there have been times when I needed my knowledge of first aid to help somebody. And today all our troopers are certified first responders.
I think my experience as a volunteer firefighter has helped me to better understand the mission of fire departments. We are all a team when responding to the urgent needs of citizens. It is important to have that working relationship. We work with each other in order to accomplish a goal.
Q: What was the first police department you worked for?
A: The Kankakee County Sheriff's Department. I started out in corrections for about six months before I went over to the 911 Center. At the age of 21, I was promoted to sheriff's deputy, and I was there for about 6 1/2 years as a deputy. I worked undercover narcotics while I was there, and I had some exposure to some significant cases, one of which took us down to Arizona. We were investigating a drug distribution organization.
Q: Do you think the use of drugs is increasing or improving?
A: Certainly the amount of drugs have increased, but statistics show there has been a drop in some drug usage and an increase in others. Heroin comes to mind as far as its availability. You can get it cheaper than ever before. That's always a concern.
Q: Since the State Police patrol the area interstate highways, is part of the district's work to stop drug trafficking coming through central Illinois?
A: Human trafficking, drug trafficking, money laundering — all involve getting from Point A to Point B. And criminals use the roadways to do so.
Q: How did you first get involved with the State Police?
A: I was hired by the State Police in 1999. I went to the State Police Academy in Springfield and was assigned to District 21 in Ashkum. I have had a lot of mentors over the years who have helped me with my career in law enforcement. Some of them are still on the job today; others have retired. But they have all contributed to the person I have become.
Q: When you made the switch from the sheriff's office to the State Police, did you start to see a different spectrum of crimes?
A: Here with the State Police, we are focused on highway enforcement more than your daily domestic violence calls, prisoner transports and things of that nature that come with the sheriff's mission. Our mission is different somewhat, but, at the end of the day, we all are seeking safer communities and safer highways.
Q: What happened next in your work with the State Police?
A: In 2002, I left the state police patrols to begin work with investigations. I investigated everything from homicides to business crimes and house crimes. I was involved with that until they started developing the methamphetamine response teams in 2005, when meth was on the increase. I did undercover work in the Kankakee area. When I left investigations, I ran two different drug units, one after the other.
Q: What was your reaction when you first learned you were being named the permanent commander here?
A: When the director sent out the announcement, I was excited. Working in this environment with so many committed people is a luxury. I am in charge of 45 State Troopers in a nine-county area spanning from Champaign County to the north, Vermilion County to the east, Coles County to the south and Macon County to the west. We have a lot of committed and talented individuals who our out to serve the public. This is an exciting opportunity for me.
Q: What do you see as the greatest challenge facing District 10?
A: We had a horrible winter, with over a 120 percent increase in some categories. Our crashes were up, whether it be personal injury or property damage. Our motorist assists were substantially up as well. Now that we are beyond that, we are focusing on highway safety, especially distracted driving. We are trying to drive down our crashes and fatalities.
Q: With the new concealed carry law, do you have any concerns about motorists carrying guns?
A: The troops and I train to protect ourselves and to protect others. Certainly the troops have received additional training because of concealed carry, and we are prepared. If somebody has a gun, it is imperative to pick up on criminal behavior. Just because you are carrying a gun doesn't mean you are a criminal. So it is important for us to be able to communicate with the public and be aware of the fact that we now do have concealed carry and it is a right in Illinois.
Q: Is it still significant that an African-American has been appointed as commander, or has society grown to the point it is no longer a big deal?
A: From my vantage point, my goal is to be promoted based on my merits. I certainly am African-American, and I am aware of that. In general, attracting African-Americans to law enforcement is a challenge.
Q: Do you think your leadership might inspire more African Americans to pursue a career in law enforcement?
A: I am a recruiter for the State Police as well, and occasionally I attend events and try to mentor others and convince them. It's a great job, and the State Police is a great organization. We need capable, qualified minorities and females for this occupation.
Q: When you were a little kid, what did you want to be?
A: Like anyone else, a firefighter and a police officer. They were at the top of my list.
Q: What car do you drive away from the State Police headquarters?
A: We own a silver 2011 Hyundai Sonata. It's a hybrid.
Q: Whose poster was on your wall when you were a kid?
A: Michael Jordan. I certainly was a big fan. When he played, those were the great years in Chicago sports. I still wear some of his clothes occasionally. I have a plaque on the wall of my office here in District 10 that includes a quote from Michael Jordan: "Some people want it to happen, some wish it would happen, others make it happen."
Q: What was the most unnerving moment you ever had on the job?
A: The most unnerving moment for me was responding to an officer-involved shooting. During a drug investigation in 1997, an undercover agent was buying drugs from two individuals in Kankakee and pulled a gun at him. And I was part of the response team. It was tough, but we were successful, and all of us went home. We were trained to respond in a certain way, and we achieved that.
Q: What is your proudest moment?
A: Being appointed a captain and commander here for District 10. I have long aspired for leadership.
Q: How do you relax after a long day at the job?
A: I exercise. I run and I lift and I bike. I love watching my son and my daughter play sports. My son plays baseball, basketball and football. My daughter does gymnastics and dance.
Q: What's on your bucket list?
A: I want to hit all the baseball stadiums with my son. I'm a fan of the Chicago Cubs. So far I have been to six of them, so I have the rest of the stadiums to look forward to.
Q: What is your advice for a young person interested in a career in law enforcement?
A: Preparation and education is important. You need to be a person of integrity who truly wants to serve for the right reasons. Be a responsible citizen. That's important. It's a career; not a job. So you have to be a person who has the right focus and the right mindset to serve the people of Illinois. We are looking for the best of the best.