Typically, when new officers graduate from the California Highway Patrol Academy, they are first assigned to metropolitan areas like Los Angeles or San Jose.
Not this time.
For the first time in 11 years, five new officers with roots in the San Joaquin Valley have been assigned to the Merced Area CHP office. A little more than a week after completing the six-month academy training in Sacramento, the officers began a 45-day break-in period Monday with three different field training officers.
One of the new officers was a paramedic in Fresno for eight years and another is a 2004 Merced High School graduate. One of the new officers has more than three years' experience as a Stanislaus County correctional officer and another spent eight years as a postal letter carrier before deciding the CHP was right for him.
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Capt. Steve Badilla, Merced CHP commander, is thrilled to have the new officers and said their assignment here will be a great recruiting tool in future hires. Two of the new officers fill newly created positions and bring the office up to its full 39 authorized positions.
"It's a door of opportunity," Badilla said. "It is possible you won't have to relocate. They (new officers) know the terrain and are familiar with jurisdictional boundaries, making the learning curve easier."
Badilla said 120 new patrol officer positions were authorized statewide. Up to this point, the department has been built on a seniority basis with tenured officers getting choice reassignments. He said it's no secret some might have been reluctant to apply for the CHP knowing they would be assigned to Los Angeles as well as be gone for six months during academy training.
Noe Lomeli, 21, has lived all his life in Merced and said becoming a highway patrolman is something he's always wanted to do. Not expecting to come home on his first assignment, Lomeli is happy about landing in Merced and excited about helping people and making a difference in the community. He attended Merced College full-time, majoring in criminal justice, before going to the academy.
Dawn Hoff, 36, is the mother of a 12-year-old daughter and spent eight years as a Fresno paramedic. Fellow ambulance workers and other patrolmen urged her to apply to the CHP. She said 188 people, including 12 women, started the six-month academy program; eight women were among the 130 graduates in April 18 ceremonies.
"I wanted something that was a different kind of future, with retirement benefits," Hoff said. "The academy is a 24-hour commitment, a live-in, life-changing experience."
She's a bit apprehensive about starting a new career at age 36 but excited about living in a city area where it's only a few minutes out into the country. She also looks forward to working with other area law enforcement agencies.
As a paramedic, Hoff estimates she's responded to hundreds, maybe thousands, of auto accidents, but now finds herself focusing on all aspects of a collision, not just the medical aspect.
Eginardo Mendoza, 21, graduated from Turlock High School in 2004, got into construction but didn't see the future in that sort of work.
"I was looking for a career with job security and the CHP seemed the best way to go," Martinez said. "I was thinking I would go far away but got pretty lucky to be close to home. Now I've got to apply all I learned at the academy, go out and learn the job."
Despite three years in the U.S. Marine Corps, 33-year-old Kevin Kelly said the academy was more difficult than he expected, like his Marine boot camp and college combined. Everyday, new officers had to master some different aspect of the patrolman's job.
"Merced seems like a tight-knit, small community," Kelly said, "and seems like a good place to be. Every day will be a new, challenging situation and it will be exciting."
An Eldorado Hills resident for more than 15 years, Kelly has a 10-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter. He was a letter carrier and supervisor with the post office but said he got bored with the job.
Walter Wells, 26, spent two years as a Stanislaus County correctional officer and another 18 months in a similar role in juvenile hall there. He expects to be running into some of this criminal element as a patrolman and said he knows why and how they do some of the things they do.
Wells spent four years with a CHP Explorer Post and rode with officers at least once a month. A neighbor who was a CHP officer also inspired him to become a patrolman. Like the other new officers, Wells said learning all the techniques of accident investigation might be the most challenging aspect of the new job.
Badilla, who has 26 years with the CHP, grew up in Reedley. He has served in Central Los Angeles, the San Fernando Valley, Alturas, Sacramento and Merced and said he would recommend the CHP job to anybody, with its good benefits and security.
"It's certainly a new trend," Badilla said, "being able to offer the guys a pass home. I'm optimistic we will see more positions available."
Associate Editor Doane Yawger can be reached at (209) 385-2485 or email@example.com.