In April of 1973, a young man with waist length hair walked into a Mississippi Sporting Goods Store to look for job openings. A short time later, he was cutting his hair to work as a police officer for the Jackson Mississippi Police Department. This young man was Roger Boatner. I had to ask what led him into applying for that type of job. Was it a desire to help the community? An intense interest in police work? Chief Boatner filled me in, “I just needed a job – plain and simple. I had recently been married and I was looking for any type of steady work with benefits.” The early 1970’s was a time of unsettled issues and change in police work as well as society. The Vietnam War was just coming to a close and the draft was winding down. “During this time people were not thinking into the future too much. Most young men my age didn’t expect to live long because of the war. My own draft number was low enough that I could have been called to duty at any moment.”
Chief Boatner was raised in a military family and had traveled extensively during his upbringing. Prior to applying for the police officer job, Chief Boatner had been traveling around the states and sleeping in his Volkswagon van. A man with waist length hair traveling around and sleeping in a van got a lot of attention from police in the 1970’s – mostly from officers investigating a suspicious person. There were a lot of draft dodgers during this time and people with long hair automatically were perceived in a negative way by most cops. As a result of this, Chief Boatner experienced police encounters that were less then friendly on a regular basis. Although these encounters taught him lessons he would never forget he most likely did not have the warmest regard for police at this point in his life. So, despite these experiences Chief Boatner cut his hair, took the police job to care for his new family, but did not expect this would ever be his long term career.
The Jackson Mississippi Police Department had about 500 sworn officers during this time, and the Miranda Law had just entered the picture. “Miranda changed the way officers conducted business. Many other changes were also occurring at this time because of the civil rights movement. New procedures and policies for police were coming into play. Police were forced to reengineer the way they interacted with people dramatically.”
Police equipment has also come a long way since then. At that time, equipment was very basic. During this time, officers used the old “six shooter” and had a police radio in their car, but no portable walkie talkie. “Officers were not allowed to carry even a transistor radio during this time. If your supervisor caught you trying to listen to a ball game on a transistor radio, you were in big trouble.” Now officers have so many gadgets they have trouble fitting them all on their police belt.
Chief Boatner worked for Jackson Mississippi PD for approximately 2 years before moving to Lakeland in 1977 and beginning a new police job at the Lakeland Police Department. Shortly after his arrival in Lakeland his first marriage ended. “My first marriage didn’t stick but the job did.” Upon arriving in Lakeland his first assignment as a police officer was to work undercover buying stolen property in a store front operation. Since no one knew him in Lakeland, and only Chief Straley knew he was a cop, it made it easy for him to come into town and work undercover . The store, called Santino’s Bike Shop, was stocked with bicycles and property from the evidence room that was unclaimed and ready for disposal. Santino’s Bike Shop was located in a small white building next to what is now Super Choice Foods on Memorial Blvd. Chief Boatner’s co-worker during this time was Manny Funes from FDLE, also an unknown face in Lakeland.
Chief Boatner began the operation by making the rounds in the local bars and letting people he met know the location of Santino’s and that he would buy property. He then sat back and watched the business come in. They brought in all kinds of stolen property to sell to Santino’s Bike Shop. “They also brought drugs, even parts of a drag line someone removed from the mines.” The transactions were recorded on a reel to reel recorder and camera located in the back of the shop. This investigation continued for about a year. At the end of the year, police rounded up about 30 suspects that had been involved in selling stolen property. Chief Boatner’s cover was then blown and his undercover days came to a close.
During his time undercover, Chief Boatner was introduced to his second wife. Marci worked at the time in the criminal investigation division and observed a man that was brought into the jail in handcuffs and taken into the holding section. There was something about him she really liked, but since he was obviously a criminal, she didn’t think too much about it. The next day the same man came into the office dressed in sloppy clothes and walked right into the captain’s office. She was shocked and asked a co-worker what was going on. “That’s Officer Boatner, he works undercover.” It was some time later that they met again, but Marci never forgot that first meeting. “It is quite comical to tell people that your met your husband, the chief of police, for the first time when he was arrested!”
After that first year, Chief Boatner went to work in patrol. Chief Boatner became a member of the STAT team in 1985. The STAT team started out as uniform surveillance with some plain clothes work, but eventually evolved into uniform street work. It wasn’t long before the STAT team narrowed into one unit and eventually evolved into the street crimes unit of today.
In 1986, Chief Boatner was sent to the criminal investigations section to work in a temporary duty assignment in response to a rash of homicides and armed burglaries that were occurring that year and ended up staying on there as a detective. In 1987, he was promoted to sergeant and supervised the violent crime unit. In 1989 he was promoted to lieutenant and went to the Special Investigation Division where he remained until 1993 when he was promoted to captain. At this time he shifted to uniform patrol where he served as a patrol commander until 1996 when he was reassigned to the criminal investigation section. He was promoted to Assistant Chief in 2000 and was promoted to Chief of Police in 2003.
A lot of change has occurred in law enforcement over the past 35 years. Amazing change. The biggest change without a doubt is technology. “Although police work will always be about working with people, technology allows us to organize better, have information instantly, and put the information we have to immediate use.”
Law enforcement has moved forward as a profession by great strides since 1974. More and more officers have an education now and they are required to achieve other standards in order to get their job and remain qualified to do their job. This also means that they are paid commensurate with professional standing. All of the captains have a bachelor’s degree now, as do most lieutenants. Many supervisors have obtained a master’s degree, and there are a few working on Ph.d’s. In 1974, a college education was very rare in police work. Police work was more thought of as a good job with benefits that did not require a college education. Today this perspective has changed and hiring agencies are more apt to require education. “A college degree alone will not automatically make a good police officer, but a college degree will make a good police officer better. It also says something about a person that is willing to get a degree while working full time – they are willing to go above and beyond to achieve self improvement. Today many officers coming into this profession already have their degree in hand.”
Chief Boatner has been a staple at LPD for a long time and has many co-workers, friends, and community members that will miss him when he is gone. They all have their own stories and memories about working with him over the years. I have one story to share about Chief Boatner. It is an experience that I am sure has been shared by many who know him. I entered a crowded meeting one day to find all the chairs were taken. I went to the back of the room and leaned against the wall. Chief Boatner stood up and motioned for me to take his seat. I protested, he insisted. He stood for the entire meeting while I sat at the head of the table enjoying his comfortable chair. This may seem like a small thing, but I will always remember it. For me, this said a lot about our Chief. He always puts others first. He is generous and compassionate, and he treats people from all walks of life with respect. He sees through the outer trappings that many people use to define who they are and sees the real person inside. Take a short walk down the street with Chief Boatner and you will see he constantly encounters people and knows their name, their children’s names, and specific things about them – the details that most people do not get to with others, let alone remember.
On many occasions the Chief has personally gone out to meet with citizens with a concern and taken care of it personally. An elderly lady afraid of the dark, a man concerned about code enforcement issues. Things that could easily be delegated to others, but his genuine concern for people brings him personally to their door. Chief Boatner is also a great communicator. He has the ability to speak from the heart. He can speak to a room full of people and make you think you are the only one in the room.
Chief Boatner said it is time to pass the torch to the new incoming chief. He will do whatever he can to make it a smooth transition and wishes the best for the Lakeland Police Department in the future.
Chief Roger Boatner will retire after 35 years of service on December 23, 2010. He has elected to forego a retirement party and instead will celebrate his retirement quietly with a few friends and family. I am sure he will get some much needed rest and spend time with his wife, Marci, and daughter, Emily. And who knows?..., Maybe he will grow his hair long, buy a van, and once again travel around the country side.
- posted by Sergeant Terri Smith