Tar Heel of the Week

Father of Wake Tech's criminal justice program inspired many to 'reach beyond'

CorrespondentSeptember 7, 2013 


Robert "Deke" DeCatsye, a retired criminal justice instructor at Wake Tech, is the first inductee into the Criminal Justice Wall of Fame at the community college.

ROBERT WILLETT — rwillett@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

  • Robert ‘Deke’ DeCatseye

    Born: Aug. 24, 1934, in Detroit

    Residence: Cary

    Career: Retired professor and administrator, Wake Technical Community College; serves on the college’s Criminal Justice Advisory Committee; retired Air Force investigator

    Awards: First inductee to the Wake Tech Criminal Justice Wall of Fame; nominated to the American Academy of Forensic Sciences; selected as Wake Tech Instructor of the Year three times; twice awarded the Air Force Meritorious Service Medal

    Education: Bachelor’s in justice studies, LaVerne University, California; master’s in criminal justice administration, Goddard College, Vermont

    Family: Widower; sons John, Jim and Jeffrey; four grandchildren

    Fun Fact: DeCatsye enjoys crime novels and TV shows such as “NCIS,” which details the work of the Navy’s equivalent of the Air Force unit he served on for 11 years. But he can be a tough critic. His pet peeve is when it shows officers investigating crimes far off the military base. “They have no jurisdiction out there,” he says. “It drives me nuts.”

This story described Superior Court Judge Paul Gessner as a former judge. Gessner is currently a judge. The story omitted Jim DeCatseye, one of Robert "Deke" DeCatseye's sons from a fact box. The article also incorrectly described Deke DeCatseye's military service as spanning 15 years. He served a total of 22 years in the U.S. Navy and U.S. Air Force.

CARY - Deke DeCatsye spent his years as a cop on Air Force bases around the world – investigating everything from coffee thefts to murder to terrorist threats, often working alongside local law enforcement agencies in Turkey, Germany and across the United States.

The breadth of his experience helped him form a vision of how police work should be done that was ahead of its time. By the time he left the service in the 1970s, he was advocating the need for a broad understanding of crime and a focus on prevention, both ideas that are embraced now.

DeCatsye, 79, brought those priorities to Wake Technical Community College, where he created its first degree program for police officers starting in 1974. He spent decades training law enforcement officers, including judges, police chiefs and more until he retired in 1999.

And he’s still playing a role. He recently helped design a lab for teaching police tactics at the college’s Public Safety Education Campus, and he serves on the program’s advisory committee. He was recently named the first inductee to the Criminal Justice Wall of Fame at Wake Tech.

“Without the encouragement from Deke, I and many others would not be where we are today,” says Janie Slaughter, a former student of DeCatsye’s who now heads Wake Tech’s criminal justice department. “If you ever had someone who just moved you to reach beyond the stars, that’s him.”

Slaughter credits DeCatsye with creating cutting-edge forensic labs and says she continues to rely on him to predict trends in law enforcement and education.

“He has the foresight to realize where the field is going and what we need to do,” she says.

DeCatsye says the focus of his long career has been to promote education – not just training – of a type that he describes as “putting a lot of emphasis on people skills instead of thumping heads.”

“These people have to understand why crime happens and be there to help solve social problems,” DeCatsye says, “not just there for the end result of arresting people.”

A career begins

DeCatsye grew up in Detroit, where he lived with his mother, brother and stepfather, who drove a truck for a local laundry. A high school job running errands for a law firm sparked an interest in a law enforcement career – and introduced him to his wife, who is deceased. They were married 57 years.

Plus, he figured, he could be a police officer because his love of baseball had helped him stay out of trouble in a place where many teenagers were drawn to it.

“I had never been arrested and had no record by the time I graduated,” he says. “And in Detroit, that’s unusual.”

By then, however, he was also ready to see the world. He joined the Navy two weeks after graduation, when he was just 17, and embarked on a military career that lasted 22 years – four with the Navy and 18 with the Air Force.

His Navy years included time aboard the aircraft carrier USS Intrepid, and stints in San Diego and Philadelphia. He left because he was constantly separated from his young family back in Detroit.

Once home, he nearly joined a local police force but ended up in the Air Force, which soon trained him to be an agent with its Office of Special Investigations, which serves as the police force at Air Force bases.

His job was to investigate any crime that took place on a military base, whether it was stealing government property, drug trafficking or violent crimes.

Many of these cases involved partnering with local police agencies, and he started to take note of the differences in policies and training among them, with an eye toward helping train police officers more effectively.

His family moved with him to different assignments, and he was also taking college classes throughout his travels, eventually attending seven different colleges.

As luck would have it, the place where he landed long enough to earn his degree was LaVerne University in California, which at that time was one of the few schools nationwide with a criminal justice program.

Focus on large issues

He brought his new degree and his law enforcement ideas to Wake Tech after a search of colleges in the Southeast, a region he chose in part for its mild weather.

He started the school’s criminal justice program in a 50-foot trailer with two dozen students, no equipment and no other instructors.

The college’s program up to that point involved lawyers teaching courses at different locations around Raleigh. Law enforcement agencies taught officers more specialized skills after they were hired.

Over time, he moved into a building; hired a few more teachers; and started a lab with fingerprint equipment, photo composite machines and other gadgets that became the state’s first college forensics lab.

He instituted a two-year degree program with the courses he taught and other pertinent courses from around the college, such as sociology and psychology, liberal arts and law. As forensic science has grown more advanced, biology courses have become more important to the program.

Students learn some basic police tactics such as fingerprinting and preserving evidence, as well as hands-on investigative techniques. But the focus is on the larger issues surrounding crime.

“My theory was that law enforcement was more reactive than proactive,” he says. “The old way says that after it happens we’ll deal with it and be heavy-handed, but we’ll do very little to work with the community to figure out what’s causing these problems.”

His former students include several local officials, including Cary Police Chief Pat Bazemore and Superior Court Judge Paul Gessner. The first class to graduate from his program included two of his three sons; the third eventually went into law enforcement as well.

After an unsuccessful bid for sheriff in 1978, he left Wake Tech briefly to start a four-year degree program in justice studies at N.C. Wesleyan. He also helped start Shaw University’s program in the late 1970s.

He describes his teaching style as firm but fair, making sure important lessons got across but also making allowances for working police officers, such as letting them take tests at his house once their shifts were over.

Slaughter, his former student, describes his style as gruff but endearing: “He could tell you you were stupid in a way that would leave you thinking you could fly to the moon,” she says.

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