South Carolina probation agents will be in Chester County this weekend to help sheriff’s deputies with patrols and to find known or suspected gang members.
And one County Council member and former sheriff says the time might be right to consider consolidating the Chester Police Department and the Chester County Sheriff’s Office.
The move comes as Sheriff Alex Underwood and County Council members continue their war of words over hiring more deputies to fight a growing gang problem police say is responsible for at least three recent killings – including a Chester City Council member.
But Underwood and County Councilman John Wayne Holcombe, himself a former Chester County sheriff, say the action won’t permanently fix Chester’s problem with gang members, who Underwood says have become so brash as to threaten to kill him, his deputies and their families.
“We need to take care of our own problems,” Underwood said, conceding that the move is short-term. “This (County) Council has never given us anything.”
With no immediate money coming from the County Council, Underwood turned to the S.C. Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services for help with anti-gang efforts.
The state probation office regularly sends agents to work as backup at large events, such as motorcycle rallies in Myrtle Beach, visits by dignitaries, hurricane evacuation and more. Agency spokesman Pete O’Boyle said 10 agents will make site visits to try to find known gang members and other probationers or parolees affiliating with gangs.
All of the five alleged gang members charged in connection with the Nov. 4 drive-by shooting of Chester City Councilman Odell Williams were either on probation, out on bond for crimes as serious as attempted murder, or had felony records.
Underwood told the County Council Monday night that he needed at least four new deputies and gang investigators to keep gangs from taking control after the killing of Williams, a former Chester policeman, which came on the heels of two other murders and other violent crimes.
But council members say there is no money to hire deputies, and Underwood needs to make do with what he has until at least next year, while a task force of police and other leaders studies the gang problem.
Underwood told the council that he already has gone to courts officials and political leaders about gang problems and that a task force would at best rehash what police already know – they need more officers to confront and arrest gang members who threaten the public and cops with violence and death.
“Nothing is going to come out of the task force but talk,” Underwood said.
Since 2010, police say, at least five Chester County killings were gang-related, including a 2010 shootout between gangs that left two dead and three wounded. One alleged gang member was shot dead outside the Chester Regional Medical Center emergency room by a member of a rival gang.
Last weekend, Chester deputies say, officers from Rock Hill told them that gang members from York County were planning to go to Chester for a party that police believed could lead to violence. Underwood beefed up patrols after learning the party’s location, and the night passed without incident as the gang members did not descend on Chester, Chief Deputy Robert Sprouse said.
Several deputies, including detectives and command staff, are voluntarily working unpaid overtime to fight the gang problem, Underwood and Sprouse said.
Since taking office in early 2013, Underwood has asked the County Council for money to hire 17 more deputies – his staff numbers 52 now – and to buy patrol cars and to upgrade equipment, but he has been rebuffed.
Councilman Holcombe, who was Chester County sheriff from 1996 to 2001, said Wednesday that Underwood’s taking the council to task – even saying that council members are not taking gang violence seriously – was a political ploy that was “all for show.”
“There were times when I was sheriff when we had but two cars on the road,” Holcombe said. “And we had 41 officers, and he has 52 now. We are a small county, and we just don’t have any money right now. If we can find the money, I would give it to him. But we are talking a half-million dollars, and we don’t have it.”
The Sheriff’s Office gets almost $5 million in county money each year, $3 million of which is used to operate the county jail, animal control and the 911 system. Only $2 million is used for actual law enforcement, Sprouse said.
“We have bare bones right now and need help on patrol,” Sprouse said. “That’s what we are asking for – patrol help to keep the citizens of Chester County safe.”
Chester’s population, about 33,000, has not grown in the 13 years since Holcombe was sheriff, but police say gang, drug and violence problems have grown into street shoot-outs and execution-style killings.
Holcombe agrees with Underwood that a task force of politicians is not the solution. He advocates a police task force drawn from the Sheriff’s Office, Chester police, and other local and state law enforcement agencies.
Now might be the time to consider consolidating the Chester Police Department and the Sheriff’s Office, Holcombe said. It’s an idea he advocated 15 years ago, but it never got traction.
Chester police patrol just a few square miles with as many as five officers per shift, while the Sheriff’s Office patrols more than 500 square miles with about the same number of deputies per shift.