CHESTER >> Timid but sweet, an 11-year-old city girl said Chester Police Officer Jose Alvarez saved her and members of her family when he used his body to shield them from flying bullets earlier this week.
“He saved my life,” said the pre-teen known as “little one.”
It’s a moniker of endearment the juvenile officer has bestowed to many of the young children he’s met through his assignment as a school-resource officer. As such, the moniker was the only identification the girl’s grateful but cautious mother felt comfortable using publicly, for safety reasons.
“We have to live here,” she said.
By the officer’s count, at least eight bullets were fired within several feet of the children, and their mother, in the area of the 700 block of Tilghman Street on Monday, shortly before 10 p.m. Monday.
“All I heard was boom, boom,” Alvarez recounted Tuesday night. “I was engaged in a conversation with the parent … I was mid-sentence when two shots rang out from the left side of me.”
Alvarez said he was on the sidewalk talking to the mother about the city’s curfew ordinance. At the time, it was about a half-hour past the 9:30 p.m. curfew for those 18 years and younger.
His partner, Officer Joshua Dewees, was handling a call around the corner.
Amid the hail of shots, Alvarez said he grabbed the children, as well as their mother, wrapping his arms around them in a tight huddle, with his back toward the gunfire.
“Little one” was standing closest to him.
“I was shielding her and when I looked back I could see the muzzle flash going off,” Alvarez said. “I heard at least eight shots. I would rather the bullets hit me, my vest, than her.”
Dewees said he was clearing his scene around the corner when he heard the shots and jumped into his vehicle and drove toward the blasts.
“He definitely saved those children and their mother,” Dewees said.
At one point, according to a report provided by Police Chief James Nolan IV, Alvarez “tackled the girl to the ground and shielded her body with his, until the shots stopped.”
When the mother and the children were safely inside their home, Alvarez gave chase to the gunman, but lost the suspect on Martin Luther King Way, according to Nolan.
Alvarez said it was dark, but he saw three black men whom he believed were shooting at someone else.
According to Nolan, a Chester Housing Authority officer conducted a pedestrian stop at a nearby intersection. The man who was stopped matched the description Alvarez broadcast over the police radio.
“The subject was identified and was sweating and appeared to have been running. However, he was not in possession of a firearm and Officer Alvarez was not close enough in the chase to positively identify him,” Nolan said. “The (individual) was checked for warrants and released following negative results.”
While shots fired on the street is not an uncommon occurrence in the city, both Alvarez and Dewees said it’s unusual for a shooting to occur in such close proximity to police. On Monday, the shots rang out just across the street from where Alvarez was standing.
“I’m pretty sure they knew we were there,” he said of a presence of officers in the area due to a call for a fight just prior to the shooting.
While he does not believe the shots were being fired intentionally at him and the family members, Alvarez said the bullets were being fired in their direction. Based on the different sounds of gunshots, he said there were at least two firearms being used during what he believes was a shootout between two group factions in the area.
“We know that there is a territorial beef going on,” Alvarez said.
Noting that many children live in the area, Alvarez said, “(The offenders) do not care who is out.”
Such was the case Monday night, he suspects.
Tuesday night, the mother and another woman praised Alvarez for his quick response. But the two women also acknowledged that street violence is a common occurrence in the area, and they didn’t want to put themselves or their children in any further harm’s way.
“He didn’t even think twice,” the woman said of Alvarez’s actions. Like the mother, the other woman asked to remain anonymous.
“He did a very good job,” the mother said.
The woman said Alvarez visits their neighborhood nightly. Both women said they and many children in the area know him from school and like him.
Getting to know the “little ones” he protects as a school resource officer is a point of pride for Alvarez, an eight-year law enforcement veteran. It’s a norm he continues through the summer months as a curfew enforcer for the police department.
Alvarez does not consider his actions heroic, though he is very thankful that no one was injured.
Quite the contrary, Dewees said of Alvarez’s response. Though he usually doesn’t like to talk about work, he thought Alvarez deserved “a little recognition” and turned to Facebook to provide it.
“A job well done by my partner tonight,” Dewees posted on Facebook following Monday’s shift. “Shots began to ring out just feet from him and a small little girl. Without thinking twice he tackled the girl to the ground and shielded her body with his while calling for help. He kept the little girl covered until the shots stopped, got her quickly to the safety of her mother and then began chasing the gunman. The gunman got away but that’s OK for now because we will run into him again.”
Dewees’ post prompted over 100 likes and dozens of comments.
Among the comments:
• “Awesome selfless act of bravery … BRAVO!!!”
• “Serve and protect without recognition that’s what you guys show all the time.”
• “So scary but thank God he was there to save her life.”
• “Great job!! I always say how so many of these incidents play out on the streets in this country without most people even knowing about them.”
• “The greatest news I heard in a while. GREAT JOB!”
In a prepared release, Nolan said he is proud of the work officers like Alvarez are doing, and it fits in with a new philosophy and direction of the Chester Police Department.
“This level of self-sacrifice and bravery is commendable,” Nolan said. “It is our intention to have this attitude permeate the department in such a way that the community will develop such a trust in our officers that they will go to them with everything they need to drastically drop the crime rate to levels not seen in many years.”
Being a police officer in the city’s Juvenile Division is a job Alvarez, 39, loves. Coming from Jersey City, N.J., he marked his eighth year with the city in May.
“I don’t work a day in my life,” he said.
A father of five children ages 21 to 11, he is looking forward to September, when he expects to welcome his first grandchild.
The well-liked officer thrives being around children. It’s not unusual for him to carry a coloring book as a giveaway to children.
“I love being in the schools. I love the department I work for and I love the people I work with,” Alvarez said. “Being a police officer you never know if you will go home or not … the best thing is working with someone you trust, having a wing man.”
Alvarez considers Dewees and the three other officers in the juvenile unit — Jennifer Jones, Robert Graves and Melissa Goodman — like family.
As the shooting incident remains under investigation, city police Detective Capt. James Chubb urges anyone with any information to call city detectives at 610-447-8433.