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Chester County Council declines to approve city cops at football games

The Chester County Council considered a request Monday from the city of Chester and the Chester County school district to allow officers from the city police department to provide security at Chester High School football games.
The Chester County Council considered a request Monday from the city of Chester and the Chester County school district to allow officers from the city police department to provide security at Chester High School football games. bmccormick@heraldonline.com

There won’t be any Chester city cops at Chester High’s football stadium just yet.

The Chester County Council considered a request Monday from the city of Chester and the Chester County school district to allow officers from the city police department to provide security at Chester High School football games, but took no action after sheriff’s office representatives challenged whether the agreement between the two was legally valid.

The request comes amid a dispute between Sheriff Alex Underwood and the school district over who would provide security services at county schools. Debate Monday touched on problems between the sheriff’s office, the city and the county council as well. At one point, council members wondered aloud if communications between the different offices had simply broken down.

“We sometimes have this mentality of ‘take our toys and go home,’” said Councilman Alex Oliphant. “But these are not our toys we’re playing with. They belong to the people of Chester County.”

The trouble began when the school district dropped sheriff’s deputies as school resource officers this year in favor of private security in county schools. Those private guards would also work school athletic events. But the S.C. Attorney General’s Office has issued a formal opinion that such security officers do not have the same arrest powers as sworn law enforcement officers.

The school district requested the city extend its coverage area so Chester police could work games at the high school football stadium, less than a mile outside the Chester city limits.

The Chester City Council met in an “emergency” session on Aug. 19 to approve the request ahead of Chester High’s home opener against Lewisville High. But the decision also would require county approval, and County Supervisor Shane Stuart declined to call a meeting ahead of Monday’s previously scheduled meeting.

Most of Monday’s meeting was taken up with comments from the sheriff’s representatives, who opposed the request. Jarrod Bruder, executive director of the S.C. Sheriffs’ Association, told the council the request doesn’t comply with state law allowing city police to extend their jurisdiction beyond city lines.

The request from the city would only allow police officers to respond two miles out from Chester, whereas the law calls specifically for a three-mile radius. Bruder also said authority can’t be limited to specific places and events like school “extracurricular activities,” as the school district wants.

A request for jurisdictional change would also have to come from the sheriff’s office as the agency that already has jurisdiction at the stadium, Bruder said.

“If you had a homicide investigation, and somebody was interviewed out there by a city police officer, it would depend on this contract for that to come in,” Bruder said. “A defendant could move to dismiss based on lack of jurisdiction.”

Bruder said the agreement would usurp the powers of the sheriff’s office and wouldn’t be legally valid, citing an earlier legal battle when the County Council tried to take the 911 communications system out from under the sheriff’s office. That led Councilman Archie Lucas to say he was tired of “bullying” from the sheriff’s office.

This isn’t the first territorial dispute between the sheriff’s office and Chester city police. At the end of July, city police moved out of a county-owned office building they shared with sheriff’s deputies after some personnel accused the sheriff of locking them out of their offices.

Officials seemed unclear on where the sheriff’s role at the football stadium currently stands. Chester City Administrator Sandi Worthy said she had received a “blunt” letter from Underwood declining to make sheriff’s deputies available to provide off-duty security at football games.

Britton All, an attorney with the Richland County Sheriff’s Office, challenged that and told the council she texted Underwood during Monday’s meeting to confirm his position. She said Underwood would make deputies available to cover games, and had told the school athletic director as much, but the school district superintendent declined to approve the suggestion.

Reached after the meeting, Underwood said the offer still stands, but he hadn’t heard from superintendent Agnes Slayman since he extended the offer to Chester High administration prior to the school’s football jamboree, before the city acted on the request to have city officers fill the roles.

“We’re all eager to do it. I just hadn’t heard anything from them,” Underwood said. “She would just need to sign the agreement like we did (for football games) before... I think we all just need to sit down and communicate. It’s strange to me. We’re here to help everybody.”

Chester schools spokeswoman Brooke Clinton said Slayman was away on leave Monday and unable to be reached.

“Student safety is our first priority, and we are working to address the situation,” Clinton said.

At Monday’s meeting, Councilman Bradley Jordan asked All what would happen if an emergency call came in from the football game and the sheriff’s office didn’t respond. All didn’t believe that was possible, saying Underwood is constitutionally responsible for law enforcement services within his jurisdiction.

“Is he going to be playing bridge and having a rum and Coke at home and just decide he’s not going to come?” All asked.

Stuart said he would communicate with the school district superintendent, the city and sheriff’s office to determine how best to meet the city request, and the county council may take the issue up again at its Sept. 8 meeting.

Officials still have some time to decide the issue. Chester High doesn’t play at home again until the Cyclones face Lower Richland on Sept. 18.

Bristow Marchant: 803-329-4062, @BristowatHome

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