Olympia - When Thurston County Undersheriff James Chamberlain began his career in 1975, squad cars still had wind-up sirens, and deputies didn’t wear bulletproof vests.
He has witnessed a lot of progress in the years since, both on the job and in his career. He has done nearly every job in the sheriff’s office, working as a jail deputy, detective and as SWAT team commander. He was appointed head of the county’s narcotics task force in 1999, during the height of the methamphetamine epidemic, then was promoted to chief criminal deputy in 2007 under Sheriff Dan Kimball.
On Friday, Chamberlain celebrated his long career among colleagues and family members, including a grandson, in a Thurston County meeting room. It was his last day on the job, and he retired as the longest-serving sheriff’s deputy in the 159-year-old department’s history.
The deputy with the second-most years of service is Mark Curtis, who retired as a captain in 2006 with a 34-year, 10-month tenure – 10 months shorter than Chamberlain’s. Curtis praised Chamberlain’s “ramrod-straight” posture and told stories of Chamberlain’s exploits, including going to British Columbia with Kimball in 1989 to apprehend a murder suspect when both were detectives. By the time Chamberlain and Kimball returned with the suspect, they had obtained a confession and learned the location of the missing victim, Curtis said.
Curtis also marveled at Chamberlain’s courage during the Nisqually earthquake in 2001, when he drove his patrol car over a cracked and broken roadway to reach and check on the safety of his wife, Kathy, who also worked for the sheriff’s office.
“I have no idea how he got through that mess to check on his wife,” Curtis said. “That’s guts.”
Detective Dave Haller said that during his tenure as chief criminal deputy, Chamberlain fought hard to win federal grants to help preserve deputies’ jobs during the county’s budget crisis.
“I don’t know how he did it, but he saved a bunch of jobs,” Haller said of Chamberlain. “He’s been such a benefit to us in this agency. He’ll be most dearly missed.”
Chamberlain also serves as the sheriff’s de facto historian; his seven-page history of the department on the sheriff’s website includes tales of the larger-than-life figures and pioneers who once led the department.
Chamberlain reflected on his long career during an interview in his office Thursday. He said heading the narcotics task force from 1999 to 2006 was among his proudest achievements, adding that the team helped shut down a large percentage of the region’s meth labs. He also said the team was able to assign a child-protective services worker to help get children out of homes where there was drug dealing, an innovation that has been copied by other narcotics task forces.
Chamberlain said one of his earliest memories as a deputy was seeing a “wanted” poster of serial killer Ted Bundy in 1975.
He worked as a detective during a nine-month period starting in 1980 in which there were nine homicides in Thurston County, the bloodiest period in its history. He worked apprehensions of armed suspects attempting to commit “suicide by cop” before the county had a SWAT team. He said that on one occasion, he worked as a hostage negotiator when a man was holding a gun to his own son’s head. Chamberlain said he ordered a police sniper to stand down, and the crisis ended peacefully; the man was holding a BB gun.
He said he still loves his job. Chamberlain also said he won’t rule out exploring some other kind of public service, perhaps even running for office in his hometown of Lacey.
Numerous people showed their respect to Chamberlain during Friday’s ceremony. Former sheriffs Gary Edwards and Kimball joined newly elected Sheriff John Snaza. Lacey Police Chief Dusty Pierpoint, Tumwater Police Chief John Stines, Evergreen Police Services Chief Ed Sorger and Olympia Police Cmdrs. Tor Bjornstad and Steve Nelson also were on hand, joining several county commissioners. Family members in attendance included Chamberlain’s wife, their two daughters and a grandson.
Chamberlain’s 84-year-old father, Lloyd, said he was proud to see his son so honored. Kathy Chamberlain said she looks forward to traveling and that she’s glad she’ll have someone around the house to help out with the grandkids.
Nelson spoke of always being able to call Chamberlain and get help with thorny questions on subjects such enforcement of local laws on tribal lands, for example.
“Jim was always the guy who had the answers for me,” Nelson said. “I don’t know what I’m doing to do, because I lost my biggest resource.”
Retired Thurston County Chief Deputy Ray Hansen said, “He was a great guy to have working for you. I could count on him always.”
Chamberlain called his colleagues in law enforcement “the best men and women that I’ve ever met.”
“When you start this job, you never really know this day is going to come,” he said. “Sitting here, it really doesn’t hit you that you’re not going to be doing this anymore.”