Chester County, South Carolina, population 33,000, has a big city problem, gangs. They have become more violent and in November, a city councilman was shot in the head on a Chester street. Five reported gang members were charged in that fatal shooting which sparked residents to call for aggressive action.
In driving through Chester, especially during the day, it seems like the usual, sleepy rural town. But that changes at night when the gangs come out, says Lt. Johnny Neal of the Chester County Sherriff’s Department.
“Everybody wants to be in the gang. They want to prove something and they want to shoot,” Neal said.
It’s been this way for a while. In the last four years, police say there have been at least six gang-related murders. A 2010 shoot-out between rival gangs at the local hospital’s emergency room left one person dead. In July, 16-year-old Shyheim Kennedy was shot dead on a Chester street. Police say his parents had moved him away from Chester to keep him out of trouble and he was home visiting for the summer when he was shot.
Lt. Neal drove by the spot where Kennedy was shot. A wooden cross that has his name and the date he was killed written on it was erected at the spot where he was shot. Flowers, a teddy bear and other mementos surround the cross.
A member of Chester’s Roundtree Circle gang confessed to Kennedy’s shooting. The gang is one of six police say operate in Chester. The group gets its name from the Roundtree Circle neighborhood, a lower middle-class looking community of small brick homes and neat yards.
“Grandmas still live here but it’s their grandkids in this area, kids who don’t live in Roundtree but represent this 'hood,” Neal said as he drove through the community.
Roundtree Circle is where City Councilman Odell Williams was shot in the head in a hail of bullets when driving through the neighborhood in November. Lt. Neal said his murder woke residents up to the seriousness of the gang problem. However, Jerrel Broadman is unconvinced that his neighborhood is a haven for gang activity.
"People come over here with that bullshit ain’t from round here,” he said to Lt. Neal in a heated debate outside a convenience store that Neal said is a gang hangout.
“We could be hanging over here chilling but y’all think everything over here is gang related. Roundtree Circle is a 'hood,” Broadman continued. “It’s simply a 'hood and everybody over here love everybody but y’all police get it twisted.”
“You ain’t being honest,” Neal said. “Roundtree Circle is a gang as well.”
The two argued for several minutes until Neal got back in his vehicle and drove by signs and buildings in Roundtree Circle tagged by the gangs.
“There you go, Roundtree Circle for life,” he read from the side of one building that used to be a Sheriff Department substation. “They done wrote it so many times now. They will keep on doing it every time you paint over it.”
According to Chester County Sheriff Alex Underwood, a native of the town, gangs have operated in Chester for eight to 10 years.
“But it’s never been addressed,” Underwood said. “Some of these gangs are official gangs and are affiliated nationwide, several are small subsets in the county.”
It’s estimated the county has about 300 gang members. Underwood says many come from large cities. Their parents sent them to Chester to live with relatives in hopes of them straightening up. You also hear people say some kids turn to gangs because there isn’t enough for them to do.
Underwood has been aggressive in speaking out against the gangs. He’s held press conferences in which he’s vowed to take them down. He says gangs have responded by threatening to kill him and his deputies.
Underwood said he needs more help and in December, he asked the County Council to give him funding to hire four deputies and one investigator. They would focus solely on gangs. He made an impassioned plea before the council for the additional deputies, which at times turned into heated arguments between him and council members.
“How many more citizens gonna die, how many council members are gonna die?” Underwood asked council members.
"We done told you, the money is not available right now,” County Council Chairman R.Carlisle Roddey shouted back.
Underwood’s request was denied and the council voted to form a task force instead to determine the extent of the gang problem and come up with recommendations on how to tackle it.
“We can create a task force to figure out if it’s gonna rain today. Is that gonna solve anything? No. The bottom line is, they can talk about it all they want but while they’re talking action needs to be done,” Underwood said.
Some have accused Underwood of exaggerating the gang issue, but not Chester Police Chief Andre Williams.
“I came here in 2011 and I picked up on signs of gangs immediately and it’s been a problem three years prior to me coming here,” Williams said. “Me personally, I don’t think you can stop gangs, but you can slow it down or move it, I hate to say, to other areas.”
The Rev. Otha Smith worries about his church members. He says many have been victims of gang crimes. Smith is part of the task force, and believes it’s the way to go in finding solutions.
“I’m hoping this task force will provide an avenue for the churches to impact the problem and I think it can,” Smith said. “We gotta look at it from a holistic point of view. We can’t just look at it from a law enforcement point of view.”
At Frog’s Barber Shop, customer Kenny Young said the problem isn’t that complicated.
“I don’t think it’s no gangs, it’s just bad-assed kids need their tail whipped,” Young said. “Some parents scared to whip their kids and that’s why those kids get out there and cut up and get in problems. What they need is to have a curfew here to keep them kids out of the street.”
“I think it’s very serious and I don’t believe it’s overblown at all,” countered Chester County resident Patsy McCollough, who worries what gangs will do next. She helped raise money to buy protective vests for the Sheriff's Department and does not understand why some locals say there is not a gang problem in Chester.
“You do see it when you’re driving through the town, especially if you drive through in the evenings, so this is one of the things kids in Chester have turned to,” McCollough said.
Chester’s police say they hear of lots of drive-by and other shootings, but many do not get reported. One that did get reported happened at the home of a relative of Joseph Foster.
“My niece’s house got shot up about three or four months ago. People came about 4 o’clock a Sunday morning and shot the house up,” Foster said. “No one was hurt but it was nine people in the house when it happened and there are bullet holes all over the house.”
Back in Lt. Neal’s police vehicle, he slowed down in front of a run-down house where several young guys were hanging out on a front porch.
“This is another bad spot. They usually sell right here. The 10-4 gang for young guys and members of Folk Nation from Brooklyn,” Neal said as he watched the group for a while. “There are many elderly people here afraid to be in these 'hoods and they’re scared to say something, you know, because of fear of what may happen.”
Neal said with the cold weather, it’s been a bit quiet in recent days; something he believes will change as soon as the temperatures rise and more youths are on the streets, especially at night. But overall, Neal is optimistic that they will find long-term solutions to Chester’s gang problem because now, all county leaders are finally acknowledging that the problem exists.