The streets of Chattanooga are a little safer this morning.
The first city police academy in two years graduated 22 cadets Thursday night, helping to build up an understaffed city police force.
The Chattanooga Police Department staff rose to 428 officers from 406, a step in the right direction, but still not quite up to the 475 full staff, Chattanooga Police Chief Bobby Dodd said.
"We average probably 15 to 20 people retiring every year. When you go two years without an academy, you fall so far behind it's hard to overcome that," Dodd said.
Thanks to federal funding, he said he is expecting to add another 23 officers by the end of the year when a second police academy class is set to graduate.
"For us, that equates to instant seniority," said Mark Frazer, president of the police academy class, to a room full of about 180 people.
Frazer and his class had been through quite a bit together over the past 19 weeks of training.
"The schedule says it's a 40-hour week, but it's certainly a much larger commitment than that," Frazer said before the ceremony. "It's more like 50-plus hours a week, and it's very grueling. We're used to late nights."
The now-officer said the academy wasn't all serious, difficult work. When the group wasn't in the classroom or working on push-ups and sit-ups, they were out on the firing range, practicing their skills behind the wheel of a police car and even playing with dogs -- if you can count putting on a special suit and running away from attack dogs as "playing."
Graduate Tom Seiter said the academy hasn't always been like it was this year. Seiter served the Chattanooga Police Department from 1991 to '96, and 20 years later, classes were oriented more toward technology.
"It was fun coming through this time because I got to share with them, 'Here's what you're gonna see,'" he said. "It's a lot of work, it's a lot of hard work, but it's fun."
The graduates still have 16 weeks of on-the-job training, but Capt. David Woosley said really, their learning should never end.
"There are gonna be training opportunities for the rest of your career, for the rest of your life," he told the graduates. "It's your dedication that's gonna keep you here and keep you doing things the right way."
Woosley, who was involved in teaching the academy, said he was proud of the graduates, and expects them to meet every challenge they face on their new jobs.
"When these tasks seem insurmountable, when the job seems too hard, this is when your character will be proven," he said. "This is when you show what you are and you've become."
Contact staff writer Carey O'Neil at coneil@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6525.