Chester County residents have answered Sheriff Alex Underwood’s plea to county leaders for money to buy new bulletproof vests for his deputies, who have been subjected to death threats in what the sheriff declared as a “war on gangs.”
Since Underwood told the Chester County Council about the problem in a raucous and sometimes heated meeting earlier this month, more than $25,000 in pledges has poured in from residents and businesses – including a $10,000 donation from a Chester business that chose to remain anonymous.
With that kind of response, organizers say, new vests – which cost more than $800 each – could be ordered as early as next week.
The nonprofit Sheriff’s Foundation of Chester County is coordinating efforts started by two Chester residents, said foundation director Patsy McCollough.
“The response from the community has been overwhelming,” said Chief Deputy Robert Sprouse, Underwood’s spokesman.
At the Dec. 1 meeting, Underwood and County Council members argued over his request for money to hire more deputies and buy equipment. Underwood claimed county leaders refused to help him fight the war on gang violence that has escalated to the point that county leaders have asked the State Law Enforcement Division for help.
Underwood has said that he, his deputies and their families have been subjected to death threats since the Nov. 4 drive-by shooting death of Chester City Councilman Odell Williams. Five alleged gang members have been charged in connection with that killing.
Some of the body armor worn by Chester sheriff’s deputies is becoming obsolete and unsafe after about five years of use, Underwood said.
Road patrol deputies are required to wear vests while on duty, Sprouse said, and other officers are required to wear them during operations. Vests must be fitted for each officer and carry insurance from the manufacturer, he said, but that coverage is lost if the vest is passed from one officer to another.
Reserve deputies have to buy vests at their own expense, Sprouse said, and less-expensive vests have been used by some non-road officers.
County officials have spent tens of thousands of dollars in the past few years to buy vests, County Councilman Alex Oliphant said.
In June, Oliphant asked about vests and officials found that eight of the sheriff’s office vests had passed their expiration dates, but 22 more were on order. A purchase history Oliphant provided to The Herald showed that the county has ordered 24 vests this year – but 10 of those were the cheaper, unfitted type. Twenty-eight more were ordered between 2010 and 2012, meaning at least some vests are nearing the end of use.
“It is important that the public, the community knows that we have asked about vests, and how many are outdated,” Oliphant said. “It is critical that no officer that needs a vest is without one, and that the vest is fitted.”