S.C. Sheriff is Shining Example of Why the Badge Matters
Broom Handles and Backdoor Latches
In the dog days of summer in the 70s, Alex (or “Little El-eck” as we called him) would grab the empty Maxwell House Coffee can and go barreling out to the backyard. That’s where he and “Dap” (his dad) would dig in the rich soil for big, fat worms for fishing. They would take old broom handles and fashion them into corks for bobbins, which they would paint red and white. Then they would use the eyelet from a backdoor latch to attach the bobbin to the fishing line.
The best part of it all was not necessarily catching the fish, it was having the opportunity for man time with dad. Dap would often drag home from a hard day’s work, but still keep a promise to take his baby boy fishing. Often he would stretch out his 3-fold ladder like a bed and catch a quick nap while Alex waited for a nibble on the line. Dap taught him how to safely use a 4-10 shotgun to hunt squirrels. As Alex got older, Dap gradually let him go off hunting alone. Alex’s love of the outdoors helped him develop survival skills and kept him out of trouble in the picture postcard town of Chester, South Carolina.
Plucking the Birds
Alex is a bit younger than Sam, Delores, Bibbie and his closest sibling, Junebug. When he was a pre-teen, Alex says, Junebug was too busy courting the girls to hang out with him, so he would “go up the hill” to Aunt Bea’s house to spend time with cousin Arthur. Sometimes he would slip off into the woods behind the house with his BB gun and come back with a pocket full of birds. His mother Lenora never knew that Aunt Bea “took those birds and she plucked ‘em and cooked ‘em for me. I don’t remember what they taste like,” says Alex, “but you couldn’t tell me I wasn’t a hunter!” Special memories like these are what a good childhood are made of.
Alex’s dad, A.D. Underwood, Sr., was a self-employed electrician. He forged inroads not only by being a black business owner during unsettling racial times, but also by securing positions in local government that had never before been filled by people of color. There is even a housing complex named in his honor. Alex got his name from his Uncle Alex Johnson (“Big Eleck”), a plumbing business owner who also broke ground as the first black school board member. They were among the male role models of the family who defied color barriers and helped Alex formulate a dynamic sense of identity.
Flying and Fishing
Growing up, Alex was fascinated by the sights and sounds of airplanes soaring in the sky and made up his mind to fly them. He went down to Daytona Beach, Florida, to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University to become a pilot. But he put the brakes on his plans after Dap was stricken with a heart attack. The shock caused Alex to return to his hometown to help with the electrical business. As fate would have it, one day in 1984 a life-changing event occurred.
A deputy dropped in to encourage him to apply for the sheriff’s office. Alex trained for 8 weeks at the police academy and went on to train at the narcotics investigation school. But the “call of the wild” put Alex on the trail to the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, where he became the first African American game warden. He says, “My responsibilities were to enforce federal and state regulations. It ranks up there with the best jobs I’ve ever had. It was the only place you could go to work where they give you a boat, a truck, a four-wheel, and a gas card…and pay you for using them."
Here Am I, Send Me
Alex received a frantic call one day from a guy he knew at SLED (S.C. Law Enforcement Division) who told him, “I’ve got two officers who got shot and I need somebody who knows how to run dogs!” That means he needed officers who were able to catch suspects using bloodhounds. “I could do the job, but that’s a heck of a way to recruit somebody, telling them you need to replace guys who got shot!” Alex chuckles. “I worked for 4 or 5 months before I even got my application in. I joined a SLED team of 6 men and they nicknamed me ‘Big A’ because of my stature."
"We were responsible for tracking suspects who flee crime scenes, prison escapees and people who jump off prison buses. Sometimes we would track down Alzheimer’s patients or missing kids. I was also part of the SWAT team. (Special Weapons and Tactics teams are comprised of elite SLED agents trained to intervene in high-risk events such as hostage-taking and barricades.) “It was a tight-knit group and you had to put your life into someone else’s hands,” says Alex. “Our motto, which was painted on the side of our helicopter pad was, ‘Here am I, send me,’ from Isaiah 6:8.”
"Silence of the Lambs"
“The most memorable catch I made was featured on ‘America’s Most Wanted’, in which a man had kidnapped two girls (in 2006) and held them captive in an underground bunker below his shed in Darlington County.” Alex says, “The case reminded me of the movie, ‘Silence of the Lambs.’ The teenagers escaped when one stood on the other’s shoulders and was able to lift the door. They contacted the police and we manhunted for the suspect all night long, without a dog. We caught him just a mile or so from his house.” It was a chilling experience for Alex, whose mantra is, “In order to be safe, you need to be a little scared.”
The Worst Thing Ever
Alex was always aware of the dangers of the job, but it takes a special kind of person to put yourself out front in the line of duty. It was back in 2003 when he was a SWAT negotiator for a fugitive who held off police for 9 hours. The man had a gun in his shirt pocket. Not taking any chances, Alex had the man strip down to his underwear. But as he prepared to take him in, the man dashed into a closet, with Alex in pursuit. “I went to grab him, but he didn’t have no clothes on so I didn’t have anything to grab!” Alex said. Alex dove on top of him, unaware that he had guns hidden in the closet. The man rolled over, grabbed one of those guns and fired point-blank at Alex’s chest. Alex was able to return fire. “I ended up taking his life, the worst thing I had ever done!” Fortunately Alex was wearing a bulletproof vest.
He raced to his parents’ home to tell them about the shooting, worried that they would see it on TV. “My partners and I always joked that we needed to get some more black officers on the force because, in the movies back then, the black guy was always the first to die. I was feeling good to be alive, but as I sat there talking with my parents I felt this awful pain; I thought he had kneed me in my chest. My boss called me and said, 'I have some good news and some bad news. The good news is we just pulled a bullet out of your vest.'" Alex rushed to the emergency room to get checked out and realized the force of that bullet had cracked three of his ribs! What about the bad news? The man had shot the ‘spoon’ (safety lever) off the top of the flash-bang grenade attached to his vest, but the grenade didn’t go off! Alex responded, “Well, that ain’t no bad news.” His boss replied, “Yes it is. I’ve gotta send ‘em all back now ‘cause the damn things don’t work!” That was certainly one time Alex is thankful that one of his weapons malfunctioned.
Big and Small
He remembers fondly that day in 2009 when a fellow female officer called him and said, “You gotta come down to the shooting range; you gotta see this new girl they just hired, man. She’s really pretty and she has a nice personality.” “Hmmm,” thought Big A, “you know when they say ‘nice personality,’ you get kinda suspicious. But I rode out there anyway, and man, did she make those SLED greens look good! Her name was Angel Small and she was a beauty. Only thing was, she played hard to get. For months, I asked her out and she turned me down. That fall, during a hurricane preparedness meeting, she waved at me and I shot her ‘the bird.’ She asked why I did that and I said, ‘Hey, I’ve just been trying to ask you to lunch that’s all, it’s not like I’m an ax murderer!'” That broke the ice and she finally agreed to go out with him.
A little over a year later, they tied the knot. Angel Underwood is now a South Carolina magistrate judge. Alex says part of what keeps this high-powered couple on point is Angel’s competitiveness. “She is even more competitive than I am!”
Underwood for Sheriff
Alex retired from SLED that year, at the age of 46. The high crime rate of his hometown led him to start his own security business. But he wasn’t at peace in the wake of so much violence -- drug and gang activity, and the weekend shootings. In 2012, some friends and neighbors urged him to run for sheriff to “help clean up the place.” An African American sheriff would be a first for Chester County, and he wasn’t sure if the time was right. So he put out “feelers” around town, even rode in the Martin Luther King Day parade in a truck that bore an “Underwood for Sheriff” sign. It was validating for him to see people cheering all along the route. But, he says, as the election drew near, he was among a bunch of candidates who got kicked off the ballot due to a technicality. Alex was told that if he could get 10% of the voters to sign a petition, he could run as a write-in. They told him that the only politician who had ever done that successfully in South Carolina was the former segregationist Senator Strom Thurmond. Miraculously, Alex was able to get the needed signatures, but the next obstacle was getting the voters to “write in” his name as an Independent candidate. His campaign workers (a.k.a. family members and friends) went door-to-door urging residents to vote for the person, not the party. They blanketed the county with instructional door knockers to help get the word out.
Historic Oath of Office
“Big A” beat the odds to claim a historic victory as the first black sheriff of Chester County. It was a monumental achievement that drew a full house to his inauguration. His wife and 16-year-old son, T.J., proudly stood by his side as he took the oath of office.
As he started shaking things up as sheriff, he faced adoration and adversity, which included threats from hate groups and someone poisoning his beloved German Shepherd, A.J., who was training to become a K-9 officer. But he knew that nothing worthwhile was going to be easy. “As Sheriff, I actively sought qualified officers from different backgrounds to reflect the makeup of the community. We began giving periodic drug tests and three officers quit right off the bat. I supervise 120 employees and we implemented new techniques that dealt with DNA to help with crime solving. I have fought for better equipment for our deputies. My first year in office there were 3 murders, all solved within 30 hours. We are even going back to solve previously unsolved crimes. We try to forge relationships with the community. We have several programs for kids and we help seniors by working with ‘Meals on Wheels’ twice a week,” he says. Alex’s efforts are not going unnoticed. He received a state-wide distinction in 2014, being selected as South Carolina Sheriff of the Year, and he has been selected to serve on the board of the National Sheriff’s Association.
“I’m Serving with Him”
Alex has seen all branches of Chester County law enforcement come together to form the Echo DUI Task Force (Empowering Communities for Healthy Outcomes). He has also faced many unexpected challenges since becoming sheriff. He boldly confronted councilmembers for funds to hire more deputies to combat gang activity. He successfully fought off a lawsuit filed against him by a female deputy who says she was the subject of unwanted attention, and he is continuing to pray for his older son who was convicted on drug charges. “Even though he is serving time in prison, I’m serving with him,” says Alex. “It’s hard. I will never give up on him, but I am not going to help him go down the wrong path either. Anytime he decides to turn around, I will be there to help him.”
Beyond Scared Straight
TV’s Beyond Scared Straight has featured segments from the Chester County Jail, which has the only program in the country that houses wayward youth overnight. His “Project Storm” (Showing Teens Our Real Mission) is aimed at keeping teens out of jail. “It has a 97% success rate. In fact, we now have a 2-day program which is open to kids from all over the country,” says Alex. “We even had a kid come all the way from Wisconsin.” And the department is trying to reach kids before they are tainted by gangs and crime through a military-style summer camp for ages 10-14.
“We started a hunting program for kids, in which they would write a letter about conservation and we would take them on a hunt. In 2014, a young boy named Alex Collins rushed to get his letter in, just 15 minutes before the deadline. Only problem was—he was in Chester, Pennsylvania. “The kid was crying when he left; saying he didn’t know his dad, and his mom had a heart condition and couldn’t teach him how to hunt.
The sheriff in Chester, Pennsylvania knew me and gave me a call. I wanted to do something special so I brought him down to South Carolina and took him hunting and fishing. We nicknamed him ’Little A,’ and he returned to spend Thanksgiving with us last year.”
The two even appeared together on NBC’s "The Meredith Vieira Show.”
Sheriff Alex "Big A" Underwood and Alex "Little A" Collins
“A lot of kids don’t have someone to take interest in them. Most kids can’t play sports, so you have to build on what they have an interest in,” says "Big A." “I always tell my son T.J. to do the best you can in school. Be respectful and doors will open for you.” Alex has certainly answered the doors that opened for him with dignity and courage. He says he is now seeking a second term as sheriff in 2016 because there is still a lot to be done and he wants to see it through.
Respect the Badge
His department was featured on The Steve Harvey Show recently in a segment that was centered on the “Black Lives Matter” movement. “We had a white officer go on a ride-along with a black youngster who didn’t trust the police,” says Alex. “It was a good experience for both and shows how communication can help improve the system. There are some incidents that have been happening for a very long time and now with video cameras and cellphones, a lot of things are coming to light. We use body cameras in our department to cut down on improper actions. But also, people need to have more respect for law enforcement. Respect the badge. If a police officer asks you to do something, do it! A lot of people bring it on themselves. If you don’t like the way things are, get into the system yourself and help change it. Don’t stand on the outside and throw rocks,” "Big A" says, “Get in there!”