In Cleveland, a supercop or loose cannon?

 

Jim Simone, 60, has been on the Cleveland police force for 35 years. (Photo for Chicago Tribune by Ken Blaze.)
 
My story from today’s Chicago Tribune.
 
Officer hero in city but has critics over his shootings

By James Oliphant
Chicago Tribune Correspondent

CLEVELAND—In other cities, a police officer who’s shot 11 suspects and killed five of them might be called a menace or a vigilante. Probes would be launched. Community groups might mobilize, demanding he be taken off the streets or cashiered out of the force entirely.

In Cleveland, he’s a candidate for canonization.

That’s because Jim Simone is as close to a household name as any police officer has ever been in any city. Here they call him a hero and a “supercop.”

In his 35 years on the force, the 60-year-old patrol officer has made thousands of arrests, racked up a chest-full of medals and citations, been shot in the face, stabbed and struck by more than one car.

Working his West Side district, most often alone in a patrol car, he has not been afraid to arrest fellow cops for drunken driving, or the child of a police chief, or some local politicos or even — most egregiously — some members of the Cleveland Browns. Some say that’s why he’s still on the beat after so long.

But he hasn’t hesitated to use his gun when he thinks it’s necessary. And that’s what’s most upsetting to some.

The most recent incident was last month, when an off-duty Simone, cashing his paycheck at a bank, found himself in the midst of an attempted robbery. He chased the suspect out of the bank, on foot. Simone couldn’t call for backup because he’d left his radio, along with his Kevlar vest, in his car.

As he chased suspect Robert Hackworth down the street, a passing driver offered Simone a lift in pursuit. Simone caught up to Hackworth just as he reached a parked truck. Simone ordered him to freeze and leveled his weapon. Instead, Hackworth climbed into the truck and reached down, Simone would say later, for something the officer could not see.

Simone fired, striking Hackworth in the side. The truck rolled down the street and crashed into a utility pole. Hackworth was dead, Simone’s fifth career fatality. And inside the truck: no gun.

Statistical rarity

The overwhelming majority of police officers nationwide have never shot anyone in the line of duty, much less killed anyone. Simone’s statistics put him in stratospheric — possibly unique — territory.

Simone sees that kind of violence as part of the job. He says he doesn’t seek it out. And that perhaps he is carrying out God’s plan, that there might be a reason he has survived gunshots to the face and neck.

“Police don’t live in the real world,” he said in an interview. “We live in a crime-filled, violence-filled one. You take the kids to visit Grandma. We see Grandma raped, murdered and dumped in a ditch.”

People in Cleveland have followed Simone’s exploits for a long time. And he has developed a reputation here (some say by his own design) as the ultimate beat cop, the last true straight shooter.

But this time around, Simone got slapped around a little. A columnist for the local newspaper, The Plain Dealer, compared him to a serial killer. “Which is he,” wrote Regina Brett, “Cleveland’s Dirty Harry or our Jack Kevorkian?”

Brett faced an immediate backlash. A local talk radio host, Bob Frantz, read her column on the air and took calls on the issue for days. Brett was deluged with e-mails, calls, angry letters, threats of canceled subscriptions.

Another writer at the paper, Phillip Morris, took the unusual step of writing a piece countering Brett’s, calling Simone an “important symbolic figure at a critical point in our city’s history.

“We can’t eviscerate the thug culture that greases Greater Cleveland’s slide into chaos and then decry an officer like Jim Simone, who has continuously drawn a courageous line against crime,” Morris wrote.

Cleveland’s miseries are well-known. The beleaguered city on Lake Erie has long served as a symbol of industrial decline.

After a brief renaissance in the 1990s, the city has seen a soaring crime rate and an abysmal economy. Census data show that more people left Cleveland last year than any other city in the nation. Where once Cleveland was the fifth-largest city in the country, it’s now 40th.

Even with fewer residents, the city last year saw more murders than any time in the last decade.

“We were once a powerful city, we were significant, we mattered,” said Morris, the columnist. “Now we see the city taken over by a lawless element.”

Equally alarming has been the nature of the violence. Longtime Clevelanders say there is a randomness to the recent attacks. Lawyer Kevin McDermott, out jogging last New Year’s Eve, was jumped by six youths who beat him for 10 minutes with a wooden stick, a metal pole and nunchucks, leaving him close to death.

Then there was the murder last year of 12-year-old Asteve “Cookie” Thomas, caught in crossfire as she returned home from the candy store. And just last month, a patrol officer in the sleepy suburban hamlet of Twinsburg was shot and killed during a routine traffic stop. He was the fourth officer to be killed in Northeast Ohio in the last two years.

That week, fliers began appearing on the West Side of town announcing the formation of a “Neighborhood Defense League,” ostensibly made up of former soldiers, who pledged to begin issuing “their own sort of justice.”

“People feel under siege in the city,” said Kevin Bell, a community activist who lives in the heart of Cleveland’s bullet-torn, heavily African-American East Side.

Into this hothouse dropped Simone’s latest shooting and Brett’s critical column. Soon the town was talking of nothing else.

Bell might not be the most obvious ally of Simone, a white Catholic cop from the West Side. But he is one.

“I’m African-American. Simone is Caucasian,” Bell said. “I think he’s a blessing for the city. If there were more like him, things would be better.”

‘I’m not Officer Friendly’

Simone was antsy the day he sat for an interview with the Tribune, having been off the street more than a week since the Hackworth shooting while a police review board and a grand jury examined his actions. At 5 feet 8 inches and bespectacled, he is anything but physically imposing. He is, however, in shape and almost instinctively watchful and wary.

“I’m not Officer Friendly,” he likes to say.

A self-described action junkie, Simone said he hates taking vacations because he’s afraid he’ll miss something. A Vietnam vet, he’s worked as a homicide detective and a SWAT officer, but he lives for the street, for cruising alone in his patrol car at night.

“The real police work is done by guys in the black-and-whites, wearing the blue shirts and the gun belts,” he said. “If I come rolling down an alley at 2 a.m. and see you, you aren’t looking for your lost puppy.”

Simone said he always wanted to be a police officer, even after getting shot in the neck in Vietnam. He returned home to Cleveland in 1973 and signed up. He loves to tell tales from the street, like the one about the woman he found lying in the street after a car crash, clutching a severed arm from another passenger.

He agreed his city has changed. “I am amazed at the young kids who have no soul,” he said. “How do you save someone who has no soul?”

Faith and religion come up frequently when he talks.

“You have to believe in God. You have to believe in right and wrong,” Simone said. “I don’t want any accolades. I don’t want any awards.”

Brett, the columnist, said the city needs to be careful about its mythmaking.

“I don’t think we should call anyone a hero when he has shot someone in the line of duty until there is an investigation,” she said. “Do we need more supercops—or just cops?”

If Simone survives the investigation and returns to the street, he said he will retire before he’s forced to at 65.

“I want to leave here saying, ‘You know what? There’s been some value to my life. There are thousands of people alive today for what I have done in my 35 years,’ ” he said. “I fully expect to go to heaven when I die.”

joliphant@tribune.com 

 

 

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