The easy way out Thursday for Chester County Sheriff Alex Underwood – as other top police officers in South Carolina held a public event and news conference to announce dozens of arrests in a massive drug sweep – was to not show up.
Send an underling. Send a news release.
Because exactly 48 hours before the news conference, Underwood’s own son was sentenced to 12 years in prison for drug trafficking.
But Underwood did not yield. He did not shy away from the news media or other police officers from state and local agencies, or the public.
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This first black sheriff ever elected in Chester County, a man who for 30 years has locked up dope dealers who sell poison to kids, stood tall and stood proud. He stood at a podium and said these words about what police officers must do: “The goal always is to get drugs off the streets.”
Even if the sheriff’s own son is swept up in the police net.
Before Underwood was sheriff, he was a State Law Enforcement Division agent for almost three decades. He was assigned the most dangerous jobs, including a long stretch as the lead cop for South Carolina’s violent felon apprehension team.
That is a fancy way of saying that Underwood had the most guts. He was scared of nobody. He risked his life, for years, catching murderers and rapists and drug dealers. He was once shot by a convicted dope dealer and killer.
Now, as Chester County’s sheriff, Underwood has teamed with county officers and SLED agents in the current drug roundup. Some of those same SLED agents worked with York County drug agents and helped put his son in prison.
Underwood said he never asked anybody to give his son any slack.
In early 2013 when Underwood was sworn in the top cops in the state spoke and some of them cried.
Former SLED Chief Robert Stewart, arguably the most famous cop in state history who ran the state’s police agencies for over 30 years, cried. Stewart cried and talked about a police officer, Underwood, who took a bullet for the public so that drug dealers would not win. White police officers spoke of what it meant for Underwood to have risen to be elected sheriff by Chester County voters of all colors.
Since then, Underwood has instituted a scared straight program for teens in Chester County, and made national TV documentaries about the program and the dangers of drug dealing. He has made community speeches and spoken in the toughest neighborhoods – all about the evils of drugs.
Jacquese Underwood, 29, the sheriff’s son, was convicted Tuesday of conspiring to bring into York County a kilogram of cocaine in late October 2012. The son was arrested just five days before his father was elected sheriff. The son had already served three years in prison for drug trafficking when arrested in 2012 – he was only released from prison two months before he was arrested again in 2012.
The sheriff said after his son was arrested that no one is above the law, that his son refused to act in a manner that his father had taught him and required of him. So Underwood, the father and officer, shut the lawbreaker son out of his life.
The son after that often sold drugs and often was caught. The father continued to catch felons armed with machine guns and pounds of meth and cocaine and crack and put drug dealers in prison.
Of the 37 people charged with a widespread conspiracy to make and sell methamphetamine, seven are from Chester County. Underwood’s officers investigated the alleged producers and dealers.
Underwood said to the public Thursday that under his watch the “partnership of law enforcement” in Chester, Lancaster and York counties will mean more drug dealers will be arrested, go to jail.
Underwood nodded and agreed when Lancaster County Sheriff Barry Faile called the illegal drug a “menace to society.”
After the news conference, Underwood walked out of the Lancaster County Sheriff’s Office. He was told that it took courage, guts, to make a public appearance about arresting drug dealers when just two days before he lost his own son to prison for drug dealing.
Underwood did not flinch.
He was with the drug agents of his office who risk their lives, every day, to arrest people who deal drugs.
Underwood said the buck stops with him – he is the sheriff. The people of Chester County elected him to protect them from the scourge of drugs that harms black and white, rich and poor.
“We have a job to do, and that is get rid of illegal drugs and those who deal the drugs,” Underwood said.
Even if it means his son spends the next 12 years in prison.