As America protests, argues and debates how police deal with black people, there have been no protests in Chester County. The people of Chester have not marched nor fought. They have, heroically, talked.
But Chester County is in the middle of America’s continuing trouble with our national broken arm that has never been set in a cast, let alone mended – race.
Of the roughly 6,000 people who live in the city of Chester, about two-thirds are black. Of about 33,000 people who live in the county, about two-thirds are white. Translation: Blacks generally live in or close to the city, which is where police say most of the gang problems exist.
County Sheriff Alex Underwood is black. Chester Police Chief Andre Williams is black. Many in both of their command staffs are black. Several patrol officers are black. Chester’s mayor and the city administrator who runs day-to-day operations, along with the majority of the City Council, is black.
And many of the young men that police say are running wild, at least six gangs of more than 300 people, are almost all – if not all – black.
Still, with gangs putting bounties on their heads, the police in Chester County have used restraint. Politicians – many of them black, but people of both colors – have called for reasoned discussion. The public has demanded no heads of police officers on a spit.
The sheriff and police chief, both fathers of teenagers, say they will not yield to gangs.
“Black or white doesn’t matter; I’m going after gangs,” Underwood said. “They don’t have to come look for me, because I’m coming to them.”
Yet their position as black men wearing badges has made them targets.
The past six weeks in Chester seem to have been all about fear. It exploded on Nov. 4, when Chester City Councilman Odell Williams – a retired cop and as proud a black man as Chester has ever had – was killed in a drive-by shooting. Police have charged five alleged gang members. All five are black. Three have extensive criminal records, and two were free on bond for drug crimes and violent crimes that included attempted murder.
“I am afraid that something could happen here and turn Chester into a Ferguson, (Mo.), a New York, a Cleveland,” said Chester City Councilman King Thompson, who knew Odell Williams all his life. “I have problems with what happened in those places, how the police dealt with the situations. But that has not happened here.
“You can’t talk down law enforcement, not support them, because when that happens, you encourage the gangs. They think that if the community doesn’t support the police, that they can do anything they want.”
This summer, a black teen was gunned down in the middle of a busy Chester street. Another black teen, alleged to be a gang member, was arrested and charged with murder. In January, there was another killing with gang ties.
Fear has moved to the police officers, many of them black, and their families as officers have received death threats from gangs during the investigation of Odell Williams’ killing. Fear turned into a mobilization of the public, black and white, to help police get the equipment and extra officers they need to be able to rush headlong into a gang culture so violent that county leaders have asked for state help to control it.
Fear has moved on the part of leadership that a simmering pot of racial problems in America could boil over with one incident, one bullet, and cause a crisis. Fear has moved on the part of the public, who just want to be able to live freely without reprisal from gun-wielding gang members, who – if they have the audacity to threaten armed cops – surely would threaten others, too.
This past week, a Nov. 21 traffic stop involving Chester’s police chief and a 16-year-old black driver and his twin brother caused a public dispute. The teenagers’ father said Chief Andre Williams and other officers used excessive force when they pulled guns on and handcuffed his sons.
But Williams made it clear that the stop happened in gang territory; threats from gangs against police forced the officers to use the safety tactics, he said, because they did not who the driver was nor why he did not stop for several blocks. Failure to stop for blue lights is a felony in South Carolina, and Williams said guns are drawn for felony traffic stops.
On that cold Friday night, when chances were good that most other police chiefs in America were home with their families, Chester’s police chief was so concerned with public safety and the safety of his officers that he was out working and supporting his officers on the streets.
After finding out who the driver and passenger were – athletes and honor students at Chester High School – the chief didn’t issue a ticket. He let them go after their father arrived, and they received a stern lecture about the importance of responding to blue lights and sirens.
By all accounts, both teens were respectful to police during the stop. Their futures are still unlimited.
When their father complained at Monday’s Chester City Council meeting, scores of black people were there in support because of concerns over how police deal with young black men, which have rolled like a wave over America because those concerns are legitimate for African-Americans.
The father, concerned about the safety of other people’s kids, too, is part of a movement in Chester to make sure all police have the right equipment and bulletproof vests.
The police chief surely showed calmness and professionalism on a dark Friday night in gang territory. The dash camera video shows that neither he nor his officers shouted or lost their cool.
Nobody wants a bad moment, a slip, a mistake, between the public and police to end the promise and the calm. The dash camera video from the traffic stop did not show bullets or death. It showed discussion, talk – and all the people involved went home that night to hug their families.
Councilman Thompson and so many others in Chester want to make sure that the police and the community do not perceive all young black males as threats. The estimate of about 300 gang members in the county is a tiny percentage of all the young black men out there going to school, to work, and raising families.
“I don’t want any young black person – or any person of any color for that matter – profiled because of their race,” Thompson said. “I would be the first to stand up and say that is wrong.”
Chester Mayor Wanda Stringfellow, the mother of a teenage son, said she wants public safety and police protection, but not at the expense of the rights of her son or any other young black man.
City Councilman William Killian, the father of teenage children, said all people have to do is the right thing: Respect police, be good citizens, and expect courtesy and professionalism in return.
Still, public fear has escalated after the killing of Odell Williams, Killian said, and events in other places where black interaction with police has spurred protests and even looting have caused such “tension” in Chester that it is threatening to choke the life from the community.
But so far, the people of Chester have not yielded to fear or hate. The people of Chester have shown America how to combat long-standing race problems with police. Talk – even get a little bit testy, go to a public meeting, bring a crowd – but talk.
Chester’s police officers so far have been tough and fair. The community has been unbowed by the actions of a few who break laws. Black and white people in Chester have argued in the past six weeks over police protection and the duties of politicians to pay for public safety.
There have been disagreements between blacks and blacks, blacks and whites, whites and whites. But far more often, than has been cooperation between blacks and whites.
The dozens of people shelling out their hard-earned money to buy bullet-proof vests for deputies are both black and white.
The common theme, what has united Chester through a hellish six weeks, is that all have agreed that the police are part of the solution, and the problem is crime – not color.