Cass County sheriff to retire at end of year

Published 8:00 am Friday, February 12, 2016

After nearly a quarter of a century of service, Cass County’s top cop is preparing to hang up his badge.

Joe Underwood

Joe Underwood

Sheriff Joseph Underwood announced Thursday that he would not be seeking reelection in November, choosing to retire after 24 years as the head of county law enforcement. The Cassopolis resident will serve out the remainder of his sixth term as county sheriff, which ends on Dec. 31.

“I’ve been in law enforcement for over 40 years, with two years in Dowagiac and 38 years with the sheriff’s office,” Underwood said. “I’ve been in every position basically. Now it’s time for me to take some time to take care of myself, and be in charge of the dog and cat — if they listen.”

Underwood has served as Cass County sheriff since 1993, first elected in 1992. He also briefly served as sheriff in 1988, finishing up the term of James Northrop, who retired in April of that year.

Underwood grew up around law enforcement all his life, with his father serving as the village marshal of Vandalia back when the village still had its own police force, he said. Following his service in the U.S. Army, where he was awarded a Purple Heart while serving in Vietnam, Underwood followed in his father’s footsteps and entered Cass County law enforcement, joining the Dowagiac Police Department in 1971.

Underwood joined the Cass County Sheriff’s Office two years later, working his way up the ranks, starting as a deputy, then becoming a detective and then undersheriff under Sheriff Northrop.

Following the end of his service as sheriff in 1988, Underwood left the sheriff’s office to work in the private sector, before deciding to reenter public service in 1992, running for his old position.

“I felt I still had something to offer law enforcement here in Cass County, and many citizens felt I had something to offer as well,” Underwood said.

In the years since, Underwood has overseen a number of dramatic changes to the way the county deals with crime and traffic enforcement.

It was under his watch that sheriff’s office implemented 24/7 road patrols, in the process helping to cut down on the number of traffic fatalities every year — when he first took office, around 30 people were dying in traffic related accidents every year, while today that number has been cut by more than half, Underwood said.

Working together with then Dowagiac Police Chief Tom Atkinson, his former partner at the sheriff’s office, Underwood helped orchestrate the creation of the Cass County Drug Enforcement Team in 1999, bringing together county deputies and Dowagiac police officers to work to combat the trafficking of marijuana and crack cocaine. Thanks to a millage passed by the county in 2004, the team expand their operations, which continue today.

“By working together as a team, in a countywide effort, we were able to go after these people,” Underwood said. “You see today that the drug team continues to be successful, and that’s thanks to the millage voters passed and have continued to pass.”

Underwood also oversaw the construction a new 911-dispatch center and emergency response operations center on the north side of the county annex building in 2004.

Outside of just strengthening the police force and operations, Underwood and his department have also worked to build bridges with agencies and institutions outside of law enforcement. Through partnerships with Southwestern Michigan College and other colleges, the sheriff’s office issues annual scholarships to Cass County students, giving out $90,000 to date, Underwood said.

“We can’t be successful without the community, and the community can’t be successful without law enforcement,” Underwood said.

With a strong and committed staff of administrators, staff and deputies under his leadership, Underwood said he has no concerns that the sheriff’s office will continue doing its best to serve the people of Cass County following his retirement.

After turning off the lights in his office for the last time, the sheriff plans on doing some more traveling with his wife, Cindy, who retired as the director of the county’s Department of Human Services department in January. No matter what the future has in store, the couple plans on remaining in Cassopolis, Underwood said.

“Cass County is our home,” he said. “We don’t plan on leaving our home.”