There weren't many dry eyes when Benton Police Captain Roger Gaither said his goodbyes on Friday at Benton Municipal Complex.
At least in the public eye, the 33-year law enforcement veteran isn't known for showing emotion. But as he approached the podium to say a few words, the 55-year-old Gaither could no longer hold back the tears.
"I'm overwhelmed," he said. "I want to thank all the officers, my family, all the chiefs and mayors that have put up with me here these past 30 years. I'll miss this place. If there is one thing I want to say to everyone, it is cherish your family because they're always with you."
As a 1975 graduate of Benton High School, Gaither did not have aspirations to become a police officer. That was the case until he participated in a Benton Police Department program in the summer before attending the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.
"There was a good friend of mine, Lt. Rick Sheffield, and he started a police explorer post that was a Boy Scout program for boys and girls to be involved in for future law enforcement. We took a trip to Dallas to the Peace Officers Memorial and also saw some other things. That got me interested and then I saw the type of person that Rick was — always helping people — and it sparked my interest."
After a couple of years in the UALR classrooms, Gaither decided to go a different route and was hired as a traffic and security officer. After more than a year there, he became a security officer at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in 1979.
While at UALR, Gaither attended the Arkansas Law Enforcement Training Academy in Camden. Then on March 23, 1981, he was hired as a patrol officer at the Stuttgart Police Department. After a year and eight months, Gaither had the opportunity to return home.
"I really liked it there in Stuttgart. It was a small department with really friendly people, and it was a small town like Benton, but my father became ill and I wanted to move back home," Gaither said of his return to Benton.
"There was a really good chief here in Jim Harris. He had retired from Little Rock Police Department, and he began turning this department around. He made it more professional, it had better pay and better conditions, and plus I wanted to move home closer to my family. And it is just home."
Gaither was officially hired as a patrol officer for the Benton Police Department on Dec. 1, 1982. Through the years, he was promoted to patrol sergeant, then patrol division lieutenant, later support services lieutenant, then Criminal Investigation Division lieutenant, and then to administrative captain on July 18, 2001. On May 3, 2004 he became the patrol captain; served as the acting chief of police from Oct. 2, 2005, to Dec. 19, 2005; and served as interim police chief from April of 2008 until Jan. 5, 2009, when Chief Kirk Lane was hired.
Gaither said one of his proudest accomplishments as an officer actually was a night when he was working as a patrol officer.
"There used to be a place called Chief's truck stop by Brown's Country Store and Restaurant. I pulled in and there was a regular truck parked irregularly in among the 18-wheelers and I noticed the taillights shining," he said. "So I got out and looked in the car and thought it was empty, but there was a guy asleep in the front seat and there was a backpack crammed on the brake pedal. Then I noticed a pistol on the dash underneath some papers, but back in those days it wasn't that unusual. So I walked to the back of the truck, got the license plate number and then tapped on the window and woke the guy up. I told him his brake lights were on and it was going to run his battery down. It was just one of those helping people things so he wouldn't have a dead battery."
Gaither said he pulled the patrol vehicle around to the other side of the gas station and requested dispatch to check the license plate. A few moments later, dispatch informed Gaither that the truck was stolen out of Texas.
"I called another officer and we made a plan," Gaither said. "I went around the truck stop on foot and went behind the truck as the other officer pulled in front and turned on his lights. We read him his (Miranda) rights, took him to jail and I went home and went to bed after working a 12-hour shift. But then I got a phone call and they told me the gun was found to have been used in a murder of a woman in Texas. This guy had broken into her home, robbed and killed her. Then he went across the road to a convenience store and stole the truck."
According to reports, the woman was a Texas A&M student and the man who later was convicted of first-degree murder was Malcolm Trent Primrose.
"It is one of the most satisfying things I have done as an officer here at the Benton department," Gaither said. "Before he (Primrose) got to Benton, he had stopped and bought some camping equipment. The rumor was that he had planned to camp out in the woods somewhere until he thought everything had blown over. But luckily by just trying to help someone, I stumbled upon him."
He added, "They flew me down to Texas for his trial. The chief down there told me they had been working some leads but had no concrete evidence. It made me feel good to catch this guy because he could have gotten away with it. This was back before DNA evidence and all the things they have now."
Gaither said his philosophy as a police officer has always remained the same: Do the right thing. This, along with support from family, is what he says has kept him safe and helped him remain an officer for more than 33 years.
"I think every officer starts to help people. It's that simple," Gaither said. "It's doing the right thing. And I know I've done the right thing the majority of the time, even if some people may not have thought so at the time. I think I was doing the right things at the right time for the right reasons. I wish I could have helped everyone, and the people that got mad at me, I wish they weren't; but I've also had people thank me for writing them a ticket. It's doing the right thing and serving the people. You have to come up with a good balance between being fair and enforcing the law."
Gaither also said that the training officers continuously receive is what keeps all officers safe. He said officers need to remember to always rely on their training. Gaither said that is what kept him safe, even though he was stabbed by a drug-fueled man one night. He explained that officers had responded to a man who was threatening his parents with a knife and that after a long standoff with weapons drawn, the man finally dropped the knife. When Gaither and other officers went to take the man into custody, the man picked up the knife again and stabbed Gaither in the stomach just underneath his bulletproof vest. However, Gaither said the stab wound was not deep.
"He just barely stabbed me. It could have been a lot worse, so I was very lucky," he said. "I've seen a lot of things and I made it 30 years. I've been really lucky to have stayed safe."
But after three decades, Gaither has decided to take off his badge. He said there are no major plans in his retirement, but he does plan to work on some land in Hot Springs with the possibility of moving there some day.
"I want to spend some time with family. I want some personal time instead of feeling like I'm responsible for everything in the world. It's time to be responsible for me. Mainly it's just going to be nice not getting up at 8 a.m.; instead I'll sleep in until 9 and have a cup of coffee and watch the world go by," Gaither said with a smile.
"It's been more than 30 years. That's a long time to stay in anything and things have changed so much through the years. I've been with seven chiefs and seven mayors in my tenure. It's really a young man's game now. Although I have great people here that I work with, it's time to turn it over to the younger officers and give other people an opportunity."
Gaither believes the Benton Police Department will continue to progress without his services. He said it his faith in the employees that is allowing him to finally retire.
"I think this place is much better than when I first came here, but I can't attribute that to me. I have to attribute that to everyone that works or has worked here," he said. "You have to have a good administration, good backing from the council and the city, and we have that here. We have one of the best equipped departments in the state. And probably some of the highest trained officers in the state. I'm comfortable living here. I have no doubt it will continue on the way it's been. I have to thank everyone that has had a hand in this department and to all those that have put up with me these 30 years."
What will he miss most?
"That ability to see a problem and fix it. But I know there are plenty of people here that can do that."
A retirement ceremony honoring Gaither took place Friday in the council chambers of Benton Municipal Complex. A large crowd gave Gaither a standing ovation.
On that day, Lt. Scotty Hodges was promoted to captain as Gaither's replacement.
Roger Gaither and wife Linda have a 28-year-old daughter, Lindsey, who lives in Chicago.