Nobody has to tell Chester County Sheriff Alex Underwood how important the right bulletproof vest is for a cop.
“My vest saved my life,” Underwood said, recalling a decade-old incident when he was a State Law Enforcement Division agent arresting a fugitive killer. “I got shot. Broke three ribs, but I lived, and it is all because of the vest.”
So Underwood was thrilled Thursday – he even started to cry – when a check for $18,000 was given to his office to buy 20 new vests for his patrol deputies. All the money came from donations large and small. As little as $5 was donated by individuals. One Chester company gave $10,000.
“It means a lot,” Underwood said. “It is overwhelming. The community has stood up for the officers who work not for me, but for them. They put their lives in danger every day.
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“They deserve the best we can give them.”
The drive to raise money was started by three Chester residents – Kim Carter Desrosiers, Susan Thomas and Patsy McCollough, president of the nonprofit Sheriff’s Foundation of Chester County – after Underwood told county leaders in a heated meeting in November about death threats he and his deputies were receiving while investigating the Nov. 4 shooting death of Chester City Councilman Odell Williams by alleged gang members.
Underwood told the Chester County Council that his officers were putting their lives on the line without the right protective gear, and that many of the vests the sheriff’s office owns is outdated. Underwood lashed out at council members who would not buy more vests. Council members said many vests had been purchased, but there was not money in this year’s budget for more.
That answer wasn’t good enough for Desrosiers and others, who were spurred to collect the money after the killing of Williams in a crime that shocked Chester’s 32,000 residents.
“It all started small, and people just embraced it,” Desrosiers said. “They supported the police who protect them.”
The sheriff’s office has 53 sworn deputies. The 20 new vests, which will arrive in about a month, will go to the patrol officers who are required to wear a bulletproof vest while on duty, Chief Deputy Robert Sprouse said.
Because each vest is fitted for an individual officer, it comes with a $1 million insurance policy from the manufacturer. A vest that is a hand-me-down or past the five-year life span is not covered by insurance, Thomas said.
Insurance aside, Underwood said, an ill-fitting vest can be dangerous.
“The right vest covers the vulnerable areas for that person,” he said. “It may not cover everything for someone larger or smaller. The vest only works if it is the right size and the right quality for that person.
“Having a vest that is outdated is like wearing a T-shirt.”
Chester officials have bought several dozen vests, county records show, but many of those were less-expensive vests that are not fitted for an individual. Underwood continues to fight for more money for manpower and equipment to fight what he calls a “war on gangs” – repeating Thursday that each time he has asked for money for deputies, equipment and weapons, he has been rebuffed.
Still, Underwood said, morale among his deputies – many of whom are working unpaid overtime in special gang details – is higher than ever. The community vest drive, he said, has helped underpaid, overworked officers see that the people they serve care about them.
“Morale right now is sky high because the officers know the community supports them,” he said.
Underwood will ask county leaders again this year for money to equip more officers with new vests. The volunteers plan to continue to raise money to buy more vests if no more county money is allocated to buy more.