What does it take to be a CHP officer? Watch our reporter get a taste at boot camp

There are two spots at the California Highway Patrol Academy where the ground is considered sacred, not to be tread upon.

One is the CHP’s large seal, found near the center of the academy’s multipurpose gym floor. The other is the grass surrounding the CHP Fountain, a memorial to the 237 CHP officers who have lost their lives in the line of duty.

On Wednesday, as they do every Wednesday, all of the academy’s cadets gathered for what is called the “fountain ceremony.”

While the rest of the academy stands at attention, a smaller group of 28 cadets marches up to the fountain, where each fallen officer’s name and end of watch date is inscribed on a plaque.

Cadets polish the names thoroughly. After the cadets salute and march away, the sergeant overseeing the ceremony circles the monument, giving a close inspection of each polished plaque.

Celebrating its 90th anniversary this year, the CHP has deep roots in tradition and ceremony. Its academy in West Sacramento, through which all prospective officers throughout the state must pass, is no different.

Cadets spend just over six months in the academy before graduating and being sworn in. It’s a live-in academy, with trainees staying on the premises continuously Monday through Friday. Cadets are assigned to small dorms, three to a room.

The academy on Wednesday held a media tour and “boot camp,” where journalists with The Sacramento Bee and 14 other news outlets from across California got a first-hand glimpse of CHP training.

Media members ran drills, navigated a rainy obstacle course, learned the basics of firearms on the gun range, and role-played enforcement scenarios including DUI stops.

As reporters and photographers had an exhausting sample of activities and exercises jammed into several hours, about half of the academy’s cadets are nearing completion of their six-month training.

“The academy has been tough – I’m pretty sure you guys witnessed that a little bit today,” cadet Mayra Fabela, 28, explained. “It’s the same thing, almost, but just for six months.”

Now just a couple of weeks away from graduating, Fabela is the first person in her family who has pursued a career in law enforcement.

“I went through a personal situation when I was younger and I didn’t feel comfortable enough going to a law enforcement person to ask for help. ... I wanted to do something in law enforcement to make sure that any approach I make with anybody, they feel comfortable enough in case they have any issues. They don’t have to guess or think about calling somebody for help.”

While cadets enroll from all across the country, Fabela spent her childhood living in West Sacramento and Del Paso Heights.

Even with close proximity to her family, who still live in the area, Fabela says the hardest part about being in the academy is not always knowing what’s going on at home.

“My roommate, she’s from San Diego and she has a daughter at home,” Fabela said. “So I know it’s super tough for her being here.”

Family members are only permitted onto academy grounds the week of graduation, so that they can gain insight into the work their loved one has done in the academy without distracting them.

Fabela will be headed to Southern California herself after she graduates, as she chose to be assigned to CHP’s South Los Angeles office. She lived in the L.A. area for a few years.

“I also did a ride-along before coming to the academy with that area office,” she said. “I really like the way the officers work together as a team, and if you had any questions, they were there to answer anything that you may have doubts about.”

Fabela and dozens of other cadets hope to graduate from the academy and be sworn in as CHP officers in early October. An exact date for graduation has not been set.

Michael McGough anchors The Sacramento Bee’s breaking news reporting team, covering public safety and other local stories. A Sacramento native and lifelong capital resident, he interned at The Bee while attending Sacramento State, where he earned a degree in journalism.