Chester County Sheriff Alex Underwood waved his hands toward the deputies assembled behind him. They had received death threats from gangs, and Underwood spoke point-blank to the Chester County Council.
“You don’t wear that badge and that gun,” the sheriff said as the over-capacity crowd egged him on Monday night. “You ain’t out there locking them up – these guys are.”
For a full half-hour, Underwood blasted the council for not giving him more money to fight the gangs that are responsible for drug dealing, death threats, assaults – including following a school bus to attack a teen – and most recently, the Nov. 4 killing of Chester City Councilman Odell Williams in a drive-by shooting.
“I don’t know if it has to be one of you or your family to be killed,” Underwood bellowed at the council, “but we have received no cooperation from this council.”
When council members raised the idea of creating a task force to study the gang problem, Underwood called it “nothin’ but talk when it is time for action.”
Underwood, whose office gets most of its finding from the same County Council he was berating, told them pointedly that his deputies would fight gangs and win – even if the council didn’t have the backbone to help him. Underwood blasted the council for denying him more manpower the past two years and again Monday.
“Councilman Williams was killed by gangs and we have to make a stand,” Underwood said. “How many more does it have to take? Gangs are everywhere in Chester County. I don’t know how much you value your life, but I value them (pointing to the officers and county residents behind him) a whole lot more.”
Council members say the county has no money to pay for the four more patrol officers and gang investigator Underwood has said he needs.
All day Tuesday, Chester was buzzing about the war of words. At restaurants and stores, people were talking about Underwood’s standing up to the council over gang violence and swinging with his mouth wide open.
The sheriff had been true to his word, he was not going to sit idly by and do nothing – and it appeared that he has some serious public support.
“We need to take care of our own problems – this council has never given us anything,” Underwood said after the meeting, as Chester residents crowded around him to offer congratulations. Several people urged him not to back down from the County Council.
Underwood could not be reached Tuesday, but Chief Deputy Robert Sprouse called the support from the public “overwhelming.”
“We have had many people tell our deputies that they are proud that he stood up for them,” Sprouse said.
The meeting was marked by social, racial and political overtones.
Underwood, elected in 2012 as Chester County’s first African-American sheriff, has made it clear that he is targeting gangs that – judging by arrests made in recent years – are almost all black. Underwood on Monday called out the seven-member council – only one of whom is black – and pointed out that gang violence had not reached their neighborhoods, so they don’t feel the need to act decisively to stamp out gangs.
The gang problem affects mainly poor, mainly black areas of Chester County near or inside the Chester city limits, Underwood said, but it’s also in smaller towns like Great Falls and rural areas.
Deputies arrested five black men with alleged gang ties in connection with the shooting of Williams, a retired Chester police officer and one of Chester’s best-known black residents and civic supporters. At the time of the killing, two of the suspects were out on bond after being charged with previous crimes as serious as attempted murder. Underwood has said since the arrests that gangs threatened to kill him and several of his investigators working the case.
Mary Guy, the County Council’s lone black member, said Tuesday that she knew Williams all her life and that she knows many families of other victims of gang violence, so any suggestion that she is not aware of the effects of gang violence in Chester is off the mark. Despite Underwood’s “confrontation” with the council, Guy said, she will look at ways to find money for the sheriff’s self-declared “war against gangs.”
“I love my county, and I am certainly interested and concerned in doing all I can to give the police what they need,” Guy said. “We are going to look into it. I love my county, and that means all of it and everyone in it.”
Longtime County Supervisor Carlisle Roddey said Underwood’s theatrics were “orchestrated.” Roddey’s only response to Underwood came after the sheriff asked, “Maybe it will take someone getting killed in your neighborhood, is that what it takes?” Roddey asked Underwood if that was a threat.
“He knew good and well we didn’t have the money, and he played it (to) the hilt,” Roddey said Tuesday. “All my years doing this, we never had a confrontation like he did last night.
“I didn’t stop him. I gave him a chance to say what he came there to say. I let him keep blastin’.”
Roddey, who is chairman of the County Council, said he didn’t like Underwood’s claim that council members don’t care about public safety.
“We give them 31 percent of our budget, more than $5 million, and that shows we care,” Roddey said. “And when that young man got killed this summer, shot on Pinkney Street, that happened in downtown Chester, where everybody goes.
“These crimes affect us all and it is not right for the sheriff or anybody to say we don’t want these gangs rooted out.”
Councilman Brad Jordan suggested creating a gang task force to include all Chester County police agencies, prosecutors, public defenders and school officials. Ridding the county of gangs will take just such a coordinated effort, he said.
“Gangs did not come into this county overnight, and they will not go away overnight,” Jordan said. “The bottom line is, the problem won’t go away with four more deputies. “
“We all want the same things – the end of gangs in Chester County.”