Chester County Sheriff Alex Underwood’s impassioned plea to the Chester County Council on Monday night for more deputies to keep officers and the public safe from gangs turned into an argument between Underwood and several council members over money needed to handle gangs the sheriff blames for three recent murders.
The exchanges grew so heated that more than 20 deputies left positions at the back of the meeting room to stand behind Underwood during the sheriff’s 30-minute speech about the violence of gangs that are threatening to kill officers and are trying to take over Chester County.
When the council made a motion to form a task force to study the gang problem, Underwood proclaimed that “the time for talking is over,” and his officers’ lives are at risk because of a shortage of manpower, outdated equipment and a criminal element so violent that outlaws threaten to kill police investigating and arresting gang members.
Underwood said that council members insulated from the violence that is happening mainly in poorer neighborhoods have no clue to the criminal element that is threatening the lives of Chester’s people and cops.
The plea for more deputies comes after Chester City Councilman Odell Williams was killed Nov. 4 in what Underwood says is a gang-related drive-by shooting.
Council members say there is no money in the budget for this county of roughly 33,000 people to pay for at least four more patrol officers and a gang investigator. But Underwood and his deputies – and the raucous, pro-sheriff crowd Monday night – were accepting none of the talk of a financial crisis as a reason not to take care of police and the public. Only five road deputies are on patrol in 530-square-mile Chester County at any time, with 30-minute waits for backup.
“Maybe it will take someone getting killed in your neighborhood, is that what it takes?” Underwood asked the council to cheers from the standing-room only crowd.
Chester County Supervisor Carlisle Roddey, chairman of the council, asked, “Are you threatening me?” as Underwood cut him off with a question about whether it would take violence against a council member for action.
Underwood said he was not threatening Roddey, but the chairman accused the sheriff of “bullying” the council by repeatedly cutting off members who brought up an idea of a task force to look at the problem.
Underwood and Roddey – who said the sheriff already gets 31 percent of all county money – have clashed before, including a costly lawsuit over whether the county or sheriff’s office should control the county 911 system.
But Monday’s confrontation was unprecedented, as Underwood refused to yield to any council member who pleaded poverty as a reason for not hiring more officers.
Underwood was adamant in saying that the safety of the public and the police force depends on more officers and newer bulletproof vest and guns, and that waiting for next year’s budget could be deadly. Requests the last two years for 17 officers, newer cars, weapons and equipment went unheeded, he said.
“How many officers are gonna die?” Underwood asked the council.
Several times, Underwood cut off council members Archie Lucas, Brad Jordan, Mary Guy and Alex Oliphant after Jordan brought up the task force idea that would include prosecutors, public defenders and the community to see what resources are needed to fight gangs. The task force would take time, as would any budget talks into 2015 to find money for more police.
“You can sugarcoat this all you want, but the time for talk is over,” Underwood said. “It is time for action. While forming this task force, gang members are out there committing crimes, threatening people.”
Lucas challenged Underwood’s use of existing. But Underwood challenged Lucas and said all available officers from drug units, investigations and other areas are being used on the streets to combat gangs.
“You don’t wear a badge; you are not out there arresting people – these guys are,” Underwood told Lucas.
Oliphant tried to calm the argument, saying the council should look for ways to find more money for the sheriff, but the meeting that had drawn several Charlotte TV stations to cover Underwood’s request for deputies had turned “embarrassing” for Chester County.
“We look like a bunch of damn fools,” Oliphant said.
Deputies arrested five people allegedly with gang ties in connection to the shooting death of Odell Williams, a former officer with the Chester Police Department. At least two of the suspects were out on bond for crimes as serious as attempted murder at the time of the killing.