At this crucial moment where communities are rallying around an ethos of holding police accountable, I want to thank Wilmington Police Department for their consistent display of respect and acumen. In a recent joint community statement, Chief Desmond joins in denouncing the Minneapolis officers responsible for the murder of George Floyd. The statement reads “we urge that this is a time for dialogue and willingness to listen to each other.” In that same ethos and sake for dialogue, and at the risk of becoming a pariah, I want to re-shed light on an incident from 2016 I believe WPD should redress with apology, an incident I protested at the Community Walk for Justice.
Ira Jaan Simbulan was an eighteen year old Babson College student who went missing. Her body was discovered by WPD in conjunction with NEMLEC and Lowell police cadets on the morning of August 3rd 2016. It was a suicide through sleeping pills. People affected have voiced frustration with how WPD handled the search. My argument, one I have never seen raised, is that WPD’s delay in searching for her was due partially to prioritizing the August 2nd Annual Night Out 2016 event. I personally contacted Ira’s then-fiancé, humanitarian Arjun Bhatnagar, and he has endorsed and corroborated my claim.
The police-community event was from “6pm to 8pm (plus a film after dark) at Rotary Park” (Wilmington Apple 10 Things to Do Today August 2nd, 2016). I was present there. The entire time, I was ominously aware of the silence concerning Ira’s disappearance.
My understanding is there was some level of search that same day coupled with reverse 911 calls to residents in the area. I live incredibly near where the body was found and saw no search presence that day. The disparity was in the heavy presence of patrol at the Annual Night Out.
A rundown of timing highlights the time-sensitivity in of what could have been an earlier, perhaps life-saving search:
Ira “was last seen [alive] in the area of 12 Glen Road in Wilmington on [Monday] August 1, 2016 around 5 to 5:30 PM” shortly after departing Uber (Wilmington Apple 2016/08/02).
She “was located [deceased] at approximately 10:00 a.m. this morning [Wednesday, August 3, 2016] in the area of Glen Road in Wilmington” (Wilmington Apple 2016/08/03).
In between the Monday she was last seen alive and the Wednesday her body was found, WPD held its “3rd Annual National Night Out event from 6pm to 8pm” on Tuesday (Wilmington Apple 10 Things to Do Today August 2nd, 2016).
Wilmington Apple commented “she was found deceased approximately 40 hours later after an exhaustive police search” (Wilmington Apple 2016/08/04). The timing I’ve outlined reaffirms most the 40 hours were dealt a desultory hand while “exhaustive” tactics did not materialize until the last moment.
The Annual Night Out itself was lively. A K9 show, a black hawk helicopter, food, an average pre-dusk periwinkle sky. Celebrating police and community rapport. A massive showing of patrol. It was the summer I graduated from UMass Lowell. I left the Annual Night early and attempted to search up and down Glen Road but felt there was not much I could achieve. Again, I saw no search activity. I regret quitting my search.
Ira’s loved ones voiced frustration over the police procedure:
“When the family arrived with police to search, Arjun said the police weren’t interested in searching the neighborhood and told the family not to go into people’s yards because it would be trespassing” and Arjun admitted “she died not two-tenths of a mile from where she took an Uber ride to” (McGonigle).
From that same North Andover article, Himanshu Bhatnagar, Arjun’s father, said “I have very serious concerns about the way things were done… They were more concerned about following a procedure and looking for a body.”
“All they had to do was knock on the next 10 doors, and they would have found her,” Himanshu said. McGonigle notes “the Wilmington Police Department has not responded to requests for comment.”
“Bhatnagar expressed his disappointment with the way the investigation was handled, saying he and his brother were the ones who compiled useful information for the police” (Winkour).
When I personally reached out to Arjun, he said although he is an active supporter and donor to police, he has lost trust in the police’s process but not in the police themselves. He stated “I remember blindly thinking that the police will be there and do everything they can. What I learned is that it’s not always true, not until it’s too late.”
The timing and frustrations align with WPD statements:
Stated in a WPD Facebook post released Wednesday, August 3: “Officers from the WPD & NEMLEC are staging at the Swain School parking lot to begin the search for Ira Jaan Simbulan this morning” (WPD Facebook 2016/08/03). While the day prior, WPD posted it “is looking for the public’s assistance in locating” her (WPD Missing Person 2016/08/02).
“The Wilmington Police Department joined forces with the Northeastern Massachusetts Law Enforcement Council (NEMLEC) and police cadets from Lowell to investigate. Scores of responders assisted in the search which ended upon the discovery of Simbulan’s body in a wooded [sic] behind a house on Glen Road” (Winkour).
I saw this police force myself march toward Glen Road with K9 units. Not a few moments later did they discover her body.
There is no official wait period for police to search missing adults as some believe. With that said, 24 hours after Ira was last witnessed aligned with WPD’s Annual Night Out at six. And the most diligent search tactics did not occur until the morning after when her body was immediately found. The implications are damning. Contrasting the event’s large gathering of patrol, the critical window for exhaustive search was missed. A search directly following the Annual Night Out may have proved too dark. While one could claim the point of the Annual Night Out was building the very police-community rapport that prominently televised communities are lacking, I would rebuttal that in the face of searching for Ira, the Night Out amounted to optics. True community-building would have entailed searching her.
Everything Ira’s close ones spoke about her exalted her talents. Every indication merited she would become a respected singer and author. And the earliest hours of an exhaustive search could have proved life-saving. WPD could have mobilized, mutual-aid-style, the very denizens of the Annual Night Out to walk not even a mile to where she lay perhaps still alive. Now that would have been something.
Communities have a responsibility for their vulnerable ones. It is not the sole onus of the individual, of therapists, of medicine to save them. It is not only WPD’s delayed action that disturbs me but its parallels—the way societies glorify their spectacles and ignore their downtrodden. While towns rally around so called patriotic icons—police and community—redressing the plight of mental health crises and suicides falls by the wayside, a symptom of wider class unconsciousness. I take personal issue with social failures to address mental health. To invoke Guy Debord, the spectacle of WPD’s Annual Night Out 2016 posited itself as a celebration of community while in effect ignoring its most brutalized.
I thank the many Wilmington residents who commented, offered condolences for Ira, and responded to reverse 911 calls. I’ve observed utmost solidarity in Wilmington, and my sole issue is with WPD’s delayed action given the disparity of patrol presence. While WPD has proved itself noble in every other endeavor I’ve observed, I am still asking WPD to issue a formal apology concerning their delayed action to the loved ones of Ira Jaan Simbulan, and in the spirit of police accountability, to release inner reports of how the delay and disparity transpired and who was involved. This is consciously part of a broader praxis movement to give communities more control over their law enforcements.
This statement has been edited to reflect that the Community Walk for Justice has now passed. I was proud to have joined in solidarity with protestors, and I thank WPD for their role in guiding the walk. I have donated to the Ira Jaan Foundation which stimulates literacy, infrastructure, and mental health advocacy. Details below.
Daniel Andrade Amaral, resident of ten years
McGonigle, Bryan. “What happened with Ira? Family criticizes police.”
Wilmington Apple 2016/08/02
Wilmington Apple 2016/08/03
Wilmington Apple 2016/08/04
Wilmington Apple 10 Things to Do Today August 2nd, 2016
Winkour, Alicia. “Missing teen found dead.”
WPD Missing Person 2016/08/02
Wilmington, MA Police Department Facebook 2016/08/03
Donate to the Ira Jaan foundation nonprofit to stimulate literacy, infrastructure, and mental health advocacy
Follow the foundation on Facebook
Contact a social worker or suicide hotline through WPD or wider services
Spread the message about mental health in local communities and how to be an ally
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