Staff Photo by Dan Henry / The Chattanooga Times Free Press- 12/14/16. Chattanooga Police Officers Sarah Rogers, pictured, and Kayla Panganiban speak about their journey to become CPD officers while in the Police Services Center off of Amnicola Highway on Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2016.

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Badge of honor: More women joining police department ranks

Growing up, Sarah Rogers read her friends their Miranda rights at childhood sleepovers.

The Chattanooga native had yearned to be a police officer since she was 5 years old, when she first saw an officer in uniform at her church.

But the dream was elusive. She applied to become an officer in 2008, but she couldn't pass the Chattanooga Police Department's entrance requirements. She stayed close to the law enforcement life, though, marrying Officer Nathan Rogers, whom she lost to cancer in 2015.

A few weeks after her husband died, Rogers sat down with her brother over lunch and he urged her to try again.

"My brother looked at me and said, 'You've always wanted to be a police officer; it's always been a dream. And you've let too many people hold you back from what you've wanted to do,'" Rogers said. "He said, 'Why don't you pursue what you've always wanted to do?'"

So she did. And on Dec. 1, she finally became a Chattanooga police officer.

Four other women graduated in her class that day, marking a significant boost to the number of female officers in the male-dominated department, where only 35 women serve among 400 total officers.

Since police Chief Fred Fletcher took over in the summer of 2014, he's pushed racial and gender diversity at the department. Under Fletcher, the department lowered its physical requirements for incoming applicants to try to boost the number of women admitted into training academies, said Assistant Chief Danna Vaughn.

Previously, people hoping to become officers first had to pass an entrance exam that included a 440-yard sprint, an obstacle course, dummy pull, push-ups and sit-ups, Vaughn said.

"The way the old test was set up, you got points in relation to how fast or how slow you did the run, how many push-ups or sit-ups you could do," she said. "And the women were just not scoring well at all."

Applicants still have to pass an entrance exam, but it no longer includes an obstacle course and is graded differently. Current applicants begin by jumping a 5-foot chain-link fence and dragging a 160-pound dummy 10 yards within 60 seconds, Vaughn said.

Previously, that dummy drag was done at the end of the obstacle course, which included several sprints, a tunnel, a fence and a balance beam, Vaughn said.

Now, would-be cadets also must complete 18 push-ups within 60 seconds, 21 sit-ups in 60 seconds, finish a 1.5-mile run in 16 minutes and 36 seconds and finish a 300-yard sprint within 73 seconds.

"Our thought process is, we'll bring them in and then we have 22 weeks to build them up to pass the final fitness test," Vaughn said. "[As opposed to] back in the old days, when the mentality was, 'If you can't pass this test then you're not going to be able to do anything else we ask of you.'"

The physical standards required for graduation have not changed, she added.

Back in 2008, Rogers failed because she couldn't complete the dummy drag. This year, after learning the proper technique, she was able to do it.

She and another recruit, Kayla Panganiban, encouraged each other throughout the training process. Panganiban, whose grandfather was a police officer, has also long pursued a career in law enforcement — she was even accepted to a department in Connecticut, but ended up moving to Chattanooga for her husband's job just before she was scheduled to start.

"[We've] both tried time and time again to get into departments, we've both been told by people, 'Oh, you're female, you shouldn't be doing this.' It's a crazy world out there, times are changing," she said. "But females are a big asset. Just [recently] there was a female who didn't want to speak to a male officer, and because I was standing there she was more willing to talk to us about what happened."

For both women, finally donning the uniform was a triumph.

Panganiban's grandfather flew down for the ceremony, despite his doctor's orders to stay home.

And for Rogers, the weight of it all hit when she got home after being sworn in.

"I sat down, and — don't make fun of me — I cried," she said. "Without sounding cheesy, this is something I really have wanted all my life. And I know it's a tough job."

Contact staff writer Shelly Bradbury at 423-757-6525 or with tips or story ideas. Follow @ShellyBradbury.