SACRAMENTO -- The instructor at the California Highway Patrol training academy shooting range looked at the way I was holding a Smith & Wesson semi-automatic pistol, shook his head and then tilted the gun 90 degrees so its sights were facing up.
"We're not gangsters here," he said, giving me a look that might be able to melt rocks.
It wasn't the last time I was corrected or yelled at for getting things wrong Wednesday while getting a sampling of the CHP's grueling 27-week academy that has a 45 percent attrition rate for recruits. I was one of a group of reporters who signed up to get screamed at by Smokey-Bear-hat wearing drill instructors, spin out on a police car driving course and learn how to fight off an attacker trying to kill us.
The mini-boot camp comes as the CHP will throw open a three-day application period starting Sept. 12 for would-be officers. The last application period in January drew about 22,100 people, but only about 2 percent of those will end up among the approximately 7,800 uniformed officers busting drunken drivers or reconstructing fatal car wrecks. The couple dozen reporters, photographers and I found out why just as the sun was coming up Wednesday.
After we were instructed to get into formation, the "staff officers" -- basically drill instructors -- ripped into us like a blender liquefying a handful of strawberries. They told me once to put away my note pad, but I kept writing. They didn't like that.
"Oh we got a free thinker here," one screamed in my face while another observed the stubble on my cheeks. "Thanks for showing up with a fresh shave."
The yelling would take us through a quick march, a brutal round of exercises including something horrible called a "judo pushup" and finally an obstacle course of running, climbing and falling.
"If you're successful you get to go home tonight," said one of the officials who greeted us in the gym, though as I heaved and weaved I missed his name. "That should be some motivation for you."
The people who make it that far have already been through a testing of their writing skills -- CHP officers says a five-minute chase equals hours of reports -- mental, physical and background testing. CHP officers will likely end up at the door of an applicant's neighbor to ask questions about him or her. The reward is a job with a starting salary of about $67,000 a year.
The real fun starts at the academy. In between getting yelled at for doing everything wrong, cadets go through about 1,280 hours of instruction. Big focuses are learning about drugged and drunken driving as well as accident investigation. For the DUI classroom, Officer Robert Smith told us about the Nystagmus or follow-my-finger test. When a driver's pupils follow the officer's moving finger something strange will happen if the driver is intoxicated.
"The pupils will start to bounce," said Smith, a statewide coordinator for impaired driving teaching.
Then it was time to make fools of the reporters again. So we strapped on goggles that allegedly simulate being drunk enough to get arrested. The legal limit is .08 for people who are old enough to drink. We stumbled around and fell over while trying to walk a straight line.
From there, things got more serious. We learned how to fight for our lives during advanced officer safety training. It doesn't happen often but officers can end up being attacked by someone who doesn't want to go to jail and will kill to avoid it. An ultimate fighting-looking brute of an instructor, Officer Ben Fillman, showed us how to stop an attack by using a open-hand jab to the head which is delivered with enough force to shake the assailant's brain. The resulting shock is intended to provide the officer with an opening to get control of the situation.
"The punches are just the symptom. This is the problem," said Fillman pointing at the head of his fighting partner Officer Matt Wells.
Bullets and car crashes have likely taken more CHP officers' lives. In fact, there is a memorial at the academy to fallen officers with 223 names on it. The most recent was Officer Kenyon Youngstrom who died Sept. 5, 2012, after a driver opened fire on the 37-year-old father of four children on Interstate 680 near Danville. Cadets polish the brass names, which serve as a reminder of what can happen to them any day on the job.
Cadet Brent Doiguchi, 26, of Mountain View, knows of the risks, but as his Oct. 30 graduation day approaches he's focused on other things. In an interview Wednesday, he said he's willing to confront the dark sides of the job because he wants to help people. He believes becoming an officer is a direct way to do that.
And he must be pretty serious about it, too, this is his second run through the academy. The first ended when he didn't make it through the rigorous driving tests, which include driving on a water-covered track and simulations of a high-speed chase. But he spent at least $2,000 on private driving training, came back and passed the tests this time.
"You're sitting around doing nothing and you think about it," said the married father of a 10-month-old boy. "And I decided. I want to go back."
Contact Joshua Melvin at 650-348-4335. Follow him at Twitter.com/melvinreport.