Cherryville resident Steven Hoyle has always dreamed of working in the police field.
At age 26, he finally decided it was time to sign-up for the Criminal Justice Academy — also known as Basic Law Enforcement Training (BLET) — with Gaston College.
Since September, he and 18 other recruits have united in classroom and field training multiple days a week.
“It’s a long process,” Hoyle said.
He enrolled in the program after growing weary of paperwork at his former desk job with a local human resources office.
Hoyle graduated from Montreat College with a business degree, but in a few short years, discovered his life needed a change.
“I wanted a job where I could be outside and do something different every day,” he said.
Both the appeal of a cop’s ever-changing responsibilities and knowledge of his cousin’s current position as chief of the Cornelius Police Department motivated Hoyle’s switch in careers.
Lowell Police Department is currently sponsoring his training with the academy. Fellow students are being sponsored by additional area agencies including the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office, Lincolnton Police Department, Cramerton Police Department, Catawba County Sheriff’s Office and Pineville Police Department.
While sponsorship is not required for the program, it’s highly recommended.
Currently employed with the City of Gastonia Police Department, Hoyle should be hired full-time with the law enforcement agency upon graduation the end of June.
He must first pass the program’s state exam.
Earlier this month, Hoyle and his classmates, including two women, received courtroom training at the Lincoln County courthouse, learning from the active and retired judges, attorneys and magistrates from the community.
Students are required to complete 12 hours of training on the court system, including four hours of classroom instruction and eight hours of hands-on learning in the courtroom.
In addition to learning the specifics of how to prepare for court, students gained understanding of courtroom demeanor and dress and all other aspects of the judicial system, including how to give proper testimony.
“The main thing is just to tell the truth,” instructor Kent Lukach said.
A part-time firearms instructor and trainer with the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office, Lukach teaches the training portion of the BLET program alongside Deputy Joe Clemmer with the Gaston County Sheriff’s Office.
Both officers have ample experience in law enforcement — Lukach, a former Lincolnton Police Department lieutenant who retired from the agency in 2011, and Clemmer, a 10-year veteran of the Gaston College BLET program and 24-year veteran of policing.
Lukach has also been a BLET instructor, including at Gaston College and additional programs, for more than two decades.
For the last several years, retired judge Tom Bowen, Assistant District Attorney Thomas Taylor and magistrate John Dellinger have volunteered with the mock trial session of the BLET program.
Bowen, who retired from his courtroom role in 1999, he said — 22 years after being appointed to the position — initially served as an assistant district attorney for Lincoln, Cleveland and Gaston Counties, before the counties split into different districts.
At one time, he even served as the only Lincoln County judge in his district, he said.
Bowen’s decision to assist the local police academy stemmed from his desire to educate younger generations.
“I have just always been into young people in the police force,” he said. “One-third will be good police officers, one-third will be average and one-third will not be good officers. People don’t find out until they get on the job, and I try to help them find that out.”
During the courtroom training, each student is given a case involving a different charge and is expected to testify in the matter.
Without knowing any of the cases’ details, Taylor rattled off questions for each student in the hot seat, carrying out the same duties as his everyday role with the Mecklenburg County District Attorney’s Office.
Prior to his current position, Taylor served as a Gaston County District Court judge.
He said he considered courtroom testimony one of the most important parts of a police officer’s profession.
“If they do everything right,” Taylor said, “but can’t prove it in court, then it doesn’t matter.”
Dellinger, an active Lincoln County magistrate, has been volunteering with the BLET program for the last 10 years, and knows all too well the role of a law enforcement officer.
After serving as a Lincoln County Sheriff’s deputy in 1971, he transitioned to a city police position with Lincolnton the following year, before returning to the county agency, he said.
Dellinger again changed professions when he took on the role of magistrate in 1995.
Lukach could not have been more grateful for the seasoned courtroom officials’ help over the years.
“They have such a history (in the courtroom),” he said.
Bowen hoped the courtroom training would adequately prepare students for their journey ahead — a journey he believed would separate successful officers from their unskilled counterparts.
“You want them to get the feel for the courtroom,” he said, “and they will learn a lot from their mistakes, but that’s part of it — making sure the good ones stay.”
According to Maj. Dennis Crosby, director of the Gaston College Criminal Justice Academy, the BLET program runs twice a year and includes an intensive 17-week day program and 39-week evening program, allowing students to enroll in the one that best fits their schedules.
Crosby has headed the program since 2004 and even went through the academy as a young police recruit, he said.
He later served a long-time career in law enforcement before retiring and transitioning to his current role with the college.
For more information on the academy, visit gaston.edu/programs/criminal_justice_academy.php or contact Dennis Crosby at (704) 922-6595 or firstname.lastname@example.org.