SAN JOSE -- For a Police Department that has seen its share of trying times, Friday was imbued with an undeniable air of optimism.

"To be able to step out with that badge on my chest and step into a patrol car is going to be unbelievable," said 27-year-old Oxnard native David Cortez, class president of San Jose Police Academy 18. "This is something I've wanted since I was a young boy."

Cortez was one of 43 cadets who graduated Friday afternoon from the San Jose Police Department's first academy since budget woes left the program dormant for more than three years. Even better, a 52-member class is scheduled to start training next month.

"SJPD has not lost its luster," said acting Assistant Chief Edgardo Garcia moments before the ceremony. "We've had rough times, and work to do. But people still want to wear this badge and uniform."

The class was ushered in through a formal ceremony attended by police brass, city leaders and the new officers' families inside a packed Parkside Hall downtown. Cortez spoke for his fellow graduates with a speech highlighting their intense six-month academy course.

"We never gave up, and our reward is this day," he said, before leading his classmates in reciting their personal class motto "One Family One Fight."

Alongside Cortez, 32-year-old San Francisco native Alex Ribeiro -- who was lauded at the ceremony for having the highest academic scores and being the "top overall" recruit -- is set to join a force hovering around 1,050 officers. That's a 25 percent drop since 2008 sparked by budget cuts, early retirements and an outflow of officers unwilling to wait for the city to resolve a polarizing pension-reform battle tied up in court.

While it's an unavoidable undercurrent, Ribeiro and his fellow graduates aren't letting themselves get caught up in the conflict. There's too much to do and learn, he said.

"We've been so busy learning how to do the job," Ribeiro said. "That's for politicians. All I can do is do my job properly and that's what I'm focused on now."

Cortez, Ribeiro and their fellow rookie cops will now receive on-the-job training with veteran officers and are expected to be ready for patrols on their own starting in July. They faced tough odds to get to this point: their recruit class was whittled from a pool of more than 800 applicants. The next academy class was selected from about 1,400 applicants.

That dynamic has allowed the Police Department to be highly selective. Paul Watermulder, a Burlingame pastor and former Berkeley police officer whose son Tim is entering the next recruit class, said he was impressed by the standards of the admission process. Tim's pedigree as a former Army Special Forces sergeant who served in Iraq didn't spare him from a rigorous admissions process, the father said.

"My hat's off to San Jose ... I was saying to a friend who was a lead detective in Daly City and said, 'I don't think I could have survived this process,' " Watermulder said. "They have the right police model. Most guys on that force are there because they want to help people who are in trouble and are marginalized. I know Tim has been impressed with the people he has met in SJPD."

Cortez recalled that in 2008 when he first started applying for police jobs in the throes of recession, it would be routine to see 500 people testing for a handful of positions.

"Things were really bad," Cortez said. "Everything was plummeting."

Cortez got a job as a corrections officer at a federal prison in Lompoc but knew quickly that it wasn't the kind of law-enforcement work he wanted to do.

Ribeiro took a less direct path: Once a pastry cook in his native San Francisco, he later worked as a uniformed security officer at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas before heading back to the Bay Area. He said watching vice crimes like prostitution go unchecked in that city steeled his resolve to become a cop.

Rising crime rates in San Jose -- which has fast become a hot topic in City Hall and the community -- was a convincing factor in his decision to look to a city once known mostly as a suburban metropolis.

"When I left San Francisco, I always remembered hearing San Jose as the safest large city in America," Ribeiro said. "Now I hear about these crimes and things like that, and I'm thinking, what happened?"

Part of what happened is that the Police Department's ongoing decline in manpower stretched the patrol forces that Ribeiro and Cortez are expected to bolster.

"This is just part of the equation," Garcia said, referring to the newcomers. "It's a piece. But without the piece of bringing officers in, we won't be able to grow."

The fact they are being counted on to reinforce the strapped department weighed heavily on their minds as they started training in September.

"The first week was probably the longest week of my life. There was so much thrown at us," Cortez said. "There was the pressure of being the first San Jose class in three years. It was an undertone. We had a lot to live up to, and we didn't want to let down the city."

Ribeiro echoed the sentiment, showing gratitude for a police job in tough times.

"I owe the city and people a debt," he said. "I feel that they gave me a chance to serve them and do the right thing. I want to make the city safer."

Staff writer Mark Emmons contributed to this story. Contact Robert Salonga at 408-920-5002. Follow him at Twitter.com/robertsalonga.