Leaders in Chester County are vowing to help Sheriff Alex Underwood deal with pervasive gang violence – which he blames for the drive-by shooting death of a Chester City Council member – but they say there’s no money to hire more deputies.
Underwood, who has “declared war on gangs in Chester County,” wants to hire four more deputies after he and several of his investigators received death threats and promises of retribution from gangs during the investigation of five alleged gang members arrested in connection with the Nov. 4 shooting of Odell Williams, a retired Chester police officer.
But Chester County probably would need hundreds of thousands of dollars to hire, train, equip and put those deputies on the street, County Supervisor Carlisle Roddey said.
“The money is not feasible right now, and that’s a bitter pill to swallow,” said Roddey, who acts as chairman of the County Council. “I knew Odell Williams for almost 50 years. We both were at EMS even before he went on the Police Department. He was a great man.
“But we don’t have a pot full of money.”
Underwood is scheduled to address the gang problem when the County Council meets at 6 p.m. Monday.
Councilwoman Mary Guy echoed Roddey’s money concerns, and Councilmen Alex Oliphant and Joe Branham have said finding the money to hire more deputies might be difficult, even impossible.
“Maybe we can’t do four (deputies), but we have to do something,” Guy said. “I applaud the sheriff for what he is doing to try and handle this gang problem. I will do all I can to help him and help get him the help he needs.”
Williams had been on the City Council since 1997, after more than 20 years on the streets with the Chester Police Department.
The five suspects remain in jail without bond. At least two were out on bond from other crimes, including shootings, when Williams was gunned down.
Over the past four years, Chester County deputies and Chester police have identified at least six gangs that are responsible for several shootings and murders. Roddey and Guy are both “outraged” that alleged gang members would threaten Underwood and officers who are trying to protect the public.
Guy knew Williams almost all her life, she said, and his death at the hands of suspected gang members has stunned Chester.
Even before Underwood announced last week that he and his investigators had been threatened by gangs, Guy said, she had heard of the threats before any arrests were made.
“We have to support the sheriff as he works to get the gangs off the streets,” she said. “Chester is too small for gangs to be out here in the community. They have to be stopped.”
Counties and cities can apply for federal grants to help pay for more officers – Chester has done so in the past – but once those officers are on the force, usually after a couple of years, local governments must cover the full cost.
Underwood turned to officers from Chester, Rock Hill and York County, and State Law Enforcement Division agents to investigate, hunt down and arrest the five suspects in the Williams killing.
Underwood has not asked for additional help that would remain in Chester, SLED spokesman Thom Berry said, but SLED agents are typically assigned to geographic areas and specialized units.