By Paul Daquilante • Staff Writer • 

Tribal police department taking shape

He spent 33 years with the Redmond Police Department in Central Oregon, launching his career as a reserve and ending it as a lieutenant in charge of investigations. Along the way, he served as a patrol officer, corporal and sergeant.

His wife, Susan, worked 28 of those years for the department. They retired from the force on the same day in May 2011.

They were at peace with their decision. Finally, they had time to do things they had always wanted to do, especially with the grandchildren.

However, after 17 months off the clock, an opportunity arose that LaChance found too good to pass up. He had a chance to create a fledgling police force for the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, of which he is a member.

A colleague on the faculty of the Department of Public Safety and Standards Training Academy in Salem was an acquaintance of the consultant the tribe had secured to lead the hiring process.

When the consultant expressed frustration at not finding any experienced and qualified candidates who were also members of the tribe, the academy instructor said he knew someone who would be perfect for the position and contact was made.

“I told my wife, ‘I have an opportunity to get back to the tribe and build a police department from the ground up,’” LaChance said. “She said, ‘Are you serious?’”

The more he thought about what might lie ahead, the more excited he became about coming out of retirement.

“Had it not been for the tribe, I would not be doing this,” LaChance said. “I was busier in retirement than I was working. I was happy.”

The LaChances decided they would keep their house in Redmond. They decided Susan would remain there, Al would settle into tribal housing and they would commute back and forth whenever time allowed, with weekends being opportune times.

Being apart so much isn’t easy, but they are adjusting.

“I’ve made a five-year commitment, and I’ve got two goals,” LaChance said. “No. 1, I want to get the department up and running. I want this to be a progressive department and I want people to be proud of the department. No. 2, I want to find a qualified replacement when I leave.”

LaChance was born in McMinnville, but has been away from the community for a long time.

After a series of moves, he graduated from high school in Northern California, served four years in the Air Force, then earned an associate’s degree in drafting technology in Southern California.

He eventually returned to Oregon, joined the reserves in Redmond and launched a law enforcement career there. Now he’s back to his roots with the tribe.

The tribe’s four-person police department is operating out of a doublewide manufactured home sandwiched between the Spirit Mountain Casino and a tribal gas station and mini-mart. 

“The people make a police department,” said LaChance, who worked under six chiefs in Redmond. “It’s not so much the chief, it’s the other people. I’m excited about this department and the people.”

Sgt. Jake McKnight and patrol deputies Patrick McConnell and Ron Wellborn complete the department at the present time.

They are providing service to the Grand Ronde community 18 hours a day. When another patrol deputy joins the department later this year, coverage will be expanded to 20 hours a day.

The tribal force has signed interagency agreements with the Polk and Yamhill County sheriff’s offices and Oregon State Police. If no one locally is available, there is a fallback.

McKnight is serving as patrol supervisor, and LaChance believes he has a bright future in the profession. “I love Jake,” he said.

A 2006 graduate of Willamina High School, McKnight worked in the wood products industry, then signed on with the tribe. The retirement of the late Marce Norwest opened the door for him to become the tribe’s forest patrol officer.

When the tribe sought and obtained a U.S. Department of Justice grant to fund its own police force, it turned to McKnight, selecting him to serve as captain under interim Chief Pete Wakeland, then director of tribal development.

McConnell spent 3 1/2 years serving as a patrol deputy with the Polk County Sheriff’s Office before a funding shortfall eliminated his position.

Wellborn joined the department after retiring from the Yamhill County Sheriff’s office after 29 years. In addition to handling traffic duties, he will be assigned to forest patrol, where he will be working closely with the tribe’s natural resources department.

Yamhill County Sheriff Jack Crabtree said he’s glad Wellborn can continue serving in the law enforcement profession.

“Deputy Wellborn has had the privilege to serve our community for the past 29 years, and I’m pleased that he will have the opportunity to use his skills and expertise to assist the startup police department in Grand Ronde,” the sheriff said.

He said Wellborn’s knowledge and familiarity with the Polk and Yamhill sheriff’s offices would be a big asset.

“The Grand Ronde area is mostly forest area, which will require their officers to be well suited for that terrain,” Crabtree said. “Because of the extensive time he was assigned to the sheriff’s office forest patrol detail, he has learned skills that will serve him well in his new job.”

Wellborn was first hired as a Yamhill County deputy in 1984. He left to work for the Oregon State University Department of Public Safety, but returned in 1987 as a deputy.

In addition to his work in the forestlands, Wellborn has served on the Search and Rescue Team. He will continue to aid the department in that capacity.

He also helped bring Project Lifesaver to Oregon. It’s a program designed for Alzheimer’s sufferers and individuals with Autism who may wander and place themselves in harm’s way. The program has a high success rate.

LaChance said one more patrol deputy will be hired. He said a field of seven has been narrowed to three, two male and one female, all tribal members.

The new hire will take part in a four-month Department of Public Safety Standards and Training certification regimen followed by eight to 10 weeks of field training.

The tribe is covering the salaries of LaChance and McKnight. Grants are paying the salaries of McConnell and Wellborn, and will cover the new deputy’s salary.

Even though grants will ultimately fund three of the five positions, LaChance said the department will remain on solid ground.

“We will remain solvent,” he said. “I know we are going to be successful.”

LaChance said there’s no reason for the department not to grow in the future. Adding personnel will be a consideration, and that would present additional law enforcement opportunities for tribal members.

“I think Tribal Council would like to see as many Native Americans as possible be hired,” LaChance said. “The preference would be to hire tribal members. I think that sends a message to our youth that they can be accepted.”

When LaChance and McKnight were sworn in last November, Tribal Council Vice-Chair Jack Giffen Jr. called it “a monumental day for Tribal self-governance.”

Councilor Kathleen Tom said, “This is a historic day for this tribe, to have its own police officers on its own land. And to have two longtime tribal families to represent us is such an honor. It’s just another blessing for this Tribe.”

“This is a huge step, and an honor and a privilege to have our own law enforcement,” Councilor Steve Bobb said.

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