WEST SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CBS13) – The California Highway Patrol is looking for more women to join its ranks. CBS13 followed one female cadet through her final days in the academy, as the only woman to graduate in her class.
It’s the biggest day in Marissa Raya’s life: graduation day at the CHP academy in West Sacramento. She and her class stand in formation one last time. But to truly appreciate her moment in the sun, we need to take you back to the dark and grueling road she traveled to get here.
“Down, up!” Her instructor shouts as she and her class do push-ups on their knuckles in a pre-dawn workout session. The class yells their reply, “One!” The paramilitary training has become routine for the cadets over the last few months.
Watch: Part 1
Watch: Part 2
Raya, 26, has pushed her mind and body to the max to become the only female to graduate in her CHP class.
“It’s not easy. It’s not easy at all,” said Raya.
Fourteen of her fellow female cadets and 50 more male cadets dropped out one by one over the past six months.
“You know their birthday and their stories and learn about their families. It’s really hard. It’s really hard when they leave,” said Raya.
Yes, Raya is a survivor in what’s been one wild ride. The twists and turns of her six-month-long journey have been the highlight of a renewed push by the CHP to find more women like Raya.
Out of 7,459 uniformed personnel, just 551 are women. That’s just over seven percent of the department.
“If I could change just one, just one woman’s mind about coming here and doing it, I hope I do that,” said Raya.
“We want to be as diverse as possible in our department relative to the communities we serve,” said Sgt. Norman Vandermeyde.
Sgt. Vandermeyde’s is a recruiter. He thinks the tough part about filling the female ranks is beating back stereotypes.
“People sometimes think that a woman cannot do this job. That is emphatically not true. They can do it just as well — sometimes even better than the man,” said Sgt. Vandermeyde.
No need to tell that to female CHP hopefuls CBS13 caught up with at a recent recruitment session. The informational meetings are their first step on their journey to break barriers.
“I know I can do this job, and it’s more than just a physical thing, it’s a mental thing,” said Chelsea Haley.
She hopes to follow in her father’s footsteps. He’s a retired CHP officer.
“I just want to help people,” said Haley.
Chrissy Pfanner has a more colorful reason for wanting a badge, “Officers kick ass, so…,” she said laughing.
Laughter aside, Pfanner is focused on what more female officers can do for the department’s image.
“You might think of CHP a little bit differently if you see a lot more women out there,” said Pfanner.
That’s exactly what Deputy Commissioner Ramona Prieto wouldn’t mind seeing.
“Maybe we could never attain 50%, but maybe it could be a little higher than it is right now,” said Deputy Commissioner Prieto.
She was one of the first to not just wear a CHP badge, but sport the leather and boots as the department’s first female motorcycle officer in 1980.
“I really didn’t feel like anyone was picking on me, or I didn’t feel like anybody didn’t want me there. I felt like ‘Hey, I get to do this job. I have the privilege of riding a motorcycle for the highway patrol, could life be any better?'” said Deputy Commissioner Prieto.
Life is pretty good right now. Prieto is now second in command of the CHP.
“It’s not a job, it’s a career; it’s a family; it’s something that, man, you can be proud of that you’re part of,” said Deputy Commissioner Prieto.
Officer Cassie DeLucca, a 10-year veteran, thinks women can bring something to the badge that most men can’t. She calls it “verbal judo.”
“Personally, I can de-escalate a situation that can potentially be violent that’s volatile, and sometimes it just takes a female officer to calm the situation with just our demeanor,” said Ofc. DeLucca.
But if she has to get physical she will. And being a woman doesn’t matter.
“I’m well-trained. We have one of the best academies in the country, I believe. If it resorts to physical force then I have no problem going that route as well,” said Ofc. DeLucca.
Marissa Raya and her class are well-trained as well, and are literally going the extra mile, on a cold February morning.
It’s their final run before graduation. Running over the Tower Bridge, they take steps to their final destination, designed to not just empower the body, but spirit as well. A stop at the Peace Officers’ Memorial stirred emotions before the sun was even up.
But in the darkness they could see the light at the end of the tunnel as family greeted them on the steps of the State Capitol.
They know the sun will soon be shining on graduation day.
“After this run we’re OK, we’re OK now. It feels amazing,” said Raya.
Two days later, Cadet Marissa Raya graduated from the CHP Academy and was promoted to Officer Marissa Raya. She is stationed in Altadena, near her hometown of Pasadena.
The CHP just wrapped up an application period for new recruits. If you’re interested in becoming a CHP officer, you can learn about the next application period by going to the CHP recruiting or Facebook pages.