For the last 25 years of her law enforcement career, Karen Simons has worked with the U.S. Marshals Service. She loves her job but is quick to point out that it's not her only job.
"Being a mother is my most important job. Being a deputy is second. I never confuse the two," she said.
Simons entered the field at a time when there were few women employed with the U.S. Marshals Service. She has risen through the ranks with the service and is the chief deputy and the attorney general-designated U.S. marshal until a new marshal takes over. Donald Slazinik, the former U.S. marshal in Southern Illinois, retired in September.
The U.S. Marshals Service is the agency that protects U.S. federal judges and courtrooms. The agency, founded in 1789, also helps capture fugitives, does asset forfeitures, transports prisoners and provides security for witnesses for the federal government.
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Slazinik said Simons became chief deputy in 2003, and "she was a blessing. She's a very detailed person. If there's something she doesn't know, she'll learn it. She loved to do detailed stuff. I hated it," Slazinik said, recalling his time working with Simons.
The marshal is the political face of the district, but the chief runs the district.
"We weighed everything and determined what was best for the district. She understands the Marshals Service. You get a new marshal every four years normally, but I was blessed to be marshal for 16 years," Slazinik said.
For Simons, her work provides her with a good feeling. As chief deputy marshal, she is responsible for over 50 employees, task force officers and contractors.
"What a blessing," Simons said, smiling, as she talked about her job. "I feel like this job has been a gift from God. I get to come to work every day with people I have so much respect for. They're like family. I have friends who have to get up and go to jobs they don't want to go to. I can't imagine what a labor that must be."
Simons hails from Paducah, Kentucky, and is a graduate of the University of Kentucky. She earned a Bachelors of Arts degree in political science with high distinction in 1988. She has been married for 20 years to Chris Simons, who is chief inspector with the sex offender investigations branch for the U.S. Marshals Service. They have one daughter, Kaitlyn, 17.
Karen Simons, while in college, donated plasma twice a week. She said she got $40 a week to help pay the bills. She thought about becoming an attorney, but when she thought about how she would not have weekends free because of all of the material she would be reading, she changed that thought. A conversation with a parole officer, where she once worked, led her to pursue a career with the U.S. Marshals Service.
"He told me if I was serious about becoming a police officer, I needed to check out the U.S. Marshal Service," she said. She followed that suggestion, and her career in law enforcement with an agency with a rich history was born.
Starting her career with the U.S. Marshals Service, working in D.C. Superior Court in 1993 in Washington, D.C., Simons saw thousands of cases of varying kinds, including murder, rape and robbery. Also, there were juvenile court cases, mental health hearings and more.
In 1995, she went to San Francisco to work as a deputy marshal. In 1999, she became a supervisory deputy U.S. marshal in Benton. Simons became chief deputy for the Southern District of Illinois in 2003.
During her career, she has served on numerous boards and task forces. In 2009, she received the Women in Federal Law Enforcement award and the Outstanding Federal Law Enforcement Employee award. In 2007, she received the U.S. Attorney General Award for Excellence in Law Enforcement District Award.
Simons hasn't just been sitting behind a desk pushing a pencil or typing on a computer; she has been on the front lines with the other deputies, most of whom were men. She has been in dangerous situations where she had to draw her weapon and been in fights with suspects.
Were there times she has been afraid while doing her job? Yes, and she could have walked away. But the motivation comes from her burning internal desire to make a difference in people's lives, she said.
A moment of great satisfaction for Simons has been "putting handcuffs on someone who violated a child. There's nothing better than putting that person away," she said. "A child can sleep knowing that person can't touch them anymore."
When asked why, of all of the professions she could have chosen that probably would have been safer and paid more, she chose law enforcement, Simons quipped, "Somebody has to do it."
And while she knows the job the deputies do with the Marshals Service is very dangerous, she said she has immense respect for local law enforcement because many of the instances they find themselves in happen within a split second. Local police officers have little to no time to prepare for many situations they find themselves in. But, before the U.S. Marshals Service does door kick-ins, serves search warrants or other things to apprehend fugitives, they have time to prepare. And when they go out, it is with a full team.
"But, things can still happen. We try to prepare ahead," she said.
Jeff Larson, another colleague who has worked with Simons for years, said he transferred from Chicago in 2000 and pretty much has worked for Simons since.
"She is very intuitive about what's going on in the office. She wants to make sure the deputies are safe and have the equipment they need. She is always looking out for people first — judges, courts, families," said Larson, who is acting chief deputy while Simons serves as the attorney general-designate.
Larson said Simons "wants to make sure everything is tiptop perfect. She wants to make sure everybody goes home at night She is also very cognizant that we're spending taxpayer dollars when we have to spend money," he said. "She is very well liked at the headquarters (in Arlington, Virginia) and in the district."
Asked whether he was comfortable with a woman leading the agency, Larson said he was, adding, "maybe because she is a female, she has the sincerity of wanting to take care of people."
Simons wears the typical marshal duty uniform and combat boots while working, but she joked that under her boots is pink nail polish on her toes.
"My feet always look good, girl," she said, laughing.
Simons said there are about 3,000 U.S. marshals nationwide in 94 federal districts, and she would like to see more women working in the agency.
"I think you have a stronger team when you have diversity. In my experience, women communicate a little differently than men, and that can definitely be an asset in law enforcement," she said.
Slazinik agreed the Marshals Service could use more women. "We could use a couple thousand of her. I was truly blessed by having her there," he said.
When asked about how her daughter feels about the job she has been doing for two decades and the dangers involved, Simons said, "She is sometimes afraid. She watches the news. She knows what's going on. The other day when a deputy marshal was hit in the chest in Missouri, she saw that. You try to protect your child as best as you can.
"At the end of the day when I get home and before we go to bed, we talk about what went on in the day," Simons said. "We make it a point to say 'I love you' every day."
Former military officer nominated to be U.S. marshal
A Madison County Board member has been nominated to serve as the next U.S. marshal in Illinois' Southern District.
Brad Maxwell has been nominated by U.S. Sens Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth, who said Maxwell has demonstrated strong qualifications through many years of service to Illinois.
Maxwell is currently the St. Louis manager and chief of uniform security for the Boeing Company. After a 20-year stint in the U.S. Air Force, Maxwell joined Boeing Company in 2011.
Confirmation by the U.S. Senate is required.
Maxwell said previously he is very excited about his nomination. What he once thought was not possible, he said, "now it looks like it could come to fruition."