Not long after Ryan Holt became a Waco police officer some 21 years ago, he began to command attention, first as a forceful advocate for police raises, then as a technology whiz and a spokesman for the department.
Now he’s about to command the Waco Police Department itself, and he hopes to move it into a new era with lessons he’s learned about developing strategy and building relationships.
Holt, 45, an assistant chief since 2008, takes office as police chief on Sunday, with an official swearing-in ceremony at 2 p.m. Thursday at Knox Hall at the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum.
In an extensive interview Friday, Holt discussed the challenges of growth and of dealing with mental health and racial tensions, and recounted lessons learned from disasters such as the Twin Peaks shootout and the West Fertilizer Co. explosion.
Holt has been known for years for his skills in analyzing crime trends, and he hopes to build on that approach with the recent hire of two new data analysts. But he said effective policing has to come from the heart, not just a spreadsheet.
“When people talk about community policing, Waco PD has been doing that for 20 years,” he said. “The key to making it successful is for our police officers to know the people in our community. When people don’t know each other, misunderstandings and stereotypes get in the way. Our legitimacy comes from the community, and we’re not going to be successful very long if we don’t establish long-term relationships and be able to talk about hard issues.”
Holt is the permanent replacement for Chief Brent Stroman, who retired in July 2016 and was his longtime mentor.
“There’s no one that made more thoughtful decisions than Brent Stroman,” Holt said. “It was like an eight-year master class working for Brent Stroman.”
Holt was chosen with the help of a consultant in a nationwide search, and City Manager Dale Fisseler has said he stood out in a field of 83 applicants.
Interim Chief Frank Gentsch, who is returning to his role as assistant chief, said he has watched Holt demonstrate leadership in the past two decades. For example, Holt handled the complexities of relocating the police headquarters to Hillcrest Tower a few years ago, he said.
“He’s very knowledgeable and a confident supervisor who is dedicated to the department and the citizens of Waco. Ryan brings a lot of technical and operational expertise to the position as he’s worked in every division of this department. I think the city and department are very fortunate that he’ll be serving us as the new chief.”
Early in his career, when he served as spokesman for the Waco Police Association, Holt was unafraid to be a squeaky wheel on behalf of his fellow officers.
In July 2000, when City Manager Kathy Rice began to back away from a three-year plan to give an 8 percent raise each year, Holt denounced the decision in the press, then went straight to the council and successfully made a case for the raises.
Holt said the raises paid off in recruitment and retention of police officers, though he would have taken a more diplomatic approach in retrospect.
“We were kind of a bull in a china closet,” he said. “We probably could have gotten to the same point with a little less confrontation. . . . As an executive officer, it gives me significant insight to have been through that and to have represented the association that many years ago. You try to make decisions based not only on what’s good for the agency, but take into account what’s good for your officers.”
Al Melis, who was police chief from 2000 to 2007, saw Holt’s leadership potential early on.
“I thought he was going places,” Melis said. “He impressed me with the ability to talk to a crowd and really connect with them. . . . I think he’s going to be a great chief.”
Melis made Holt his “go-to person” when it came to modernizing the department’s technology.
“He could cut through to what was necessary, what was a must-have and what was just a bright, shiny thing we didn’t need,” said Melis, now in his second career as an ordained Episcopal deacon in Waco.
Growth of the city
In the interview Friday, Holt said one of his challenges is how to keep up with the growth of the city without losing the relationships between officers and communities. He said that means working smarter — using data to help prevent crime and guide the deployment of officers.
The department has 247 sworn officers, including 135 on patrol, but the force can get stretched thin, especially on certain time-consuming calls.
“The No. 1 issue we face from an operational standpoint is mental health issues, in terms of what it does to resource allocation,” he said.
State and federal cutbacks to mental health services over the years have increased the number of incidents involving the mentally ill, including threats of suicide or harm to others. It’s not unusual to have one or two mental health crisis calls on a given day, requiring an average of more than seven hours of police time. That deprives a lean staff of time for other investigations and patrols, Holt said.
He said he will work with the Texas Police Chiefs Association to seek more state help in handling and preventing mental illness episodes, while continuing to train officers in how to deal with the mentally ill.
“I think officers in general are more savvy than in the past,” he said of the mental health encounters. “They try to solve issues now when they can by using non-law enforcement means. I see officers are a lot more apt to extend compassion to mental health consumers.”
Also in the interview, Holt acknowledged the nationwide tensions between minority communities and police.
Holt said he plans to continue Stroman’s commitment to meet regularly with minority leaders, such as black pastors and NAACP officials, and he will encourage beat officers to get to know their neighborhoods.
Holt said he’s betting that those relationships can prevent the type of social unrest seen in Baltimore, Baton Rouge and Ferguson, Missouri, after black men died at the hands of police officers.
“You know, I hope we’re different,” he said. “I hope we are establishing the relationships so people know we’re coming from the right place, a good heart. Humans make mistakes on both sides of the law. It’s imperative that in critical incidents people know we’re going to get to the truth, sometimes we have to have time to get to the truth.
“At times, the truth is that officers have to use deadly force. That’s always a tragedy. No officer starts the day wanting to use deadly force. It takes a tremendous toll on an officer and their families. . . . On the other side, any family, regardless how hardened the criminal was, they were still someone’s father, brother or mother, or sister. They’re still a human being.”
Holt said he also wants to assure victims and witnesses that they shouldn’t hesitate to call police because of their immigration status.
“Our standpoint at the Waco Police Department has been when there’s a victim of crime, we don’t care about their status. We are going to investigate the crime and provide resources to victims.”
Likewise, Holt said crime suspects will continue to be investigated based on their violation of state laws, not their federal immigration status.
“What happens after the local arrest is really on the judicial system,” he said. “We prefer to address crimes in our own community.”
The Waco Police Department has not been involved in the program, formerly known as Secure Communities, in which police automatically alert federal officials to possible immigration cases.
Holt said relationships are also key to preparing for major disasters that are beyond the capacity of any one agency to handle. That was driven home in the West Fertilizer Co. explosion that killed 15 people. Holt said Waco police sent a SWAT team to help evacuate the surrounding neighborhood.
The deadly shootout at Twin Peaks restaurant on May 17, 2015, was another incident that stretched police officials’ thinking about preparing for the worst, Holt said.
“You had a lawlessness that manifested itself into a shootout in a crowded shopping center in a mid-sized city in America, and police saved a lot of lives that day,” Holt said.
“We did everything we could, given the information we had and the environment we were operating in at the time. What you have to understand is, that was a paradigm shift for law enforcement in America. Just like the Branch Davidian standoff was a paradigm shift in how law enforcement negotiates.
“There had never been two organized groups who were willing to have a shootout in a public place and put as many lives in danger as happened at Twin Peaks. . . . If you had said you’re going to have 250 people start shooting at each other, people would have said, ‘That will never happen.’ Now we can say, that may really happen. So our planning for any major event has changed because of that.”
Holt said he’s prepared to weather criticism and take hard questions as police chief. But he said the public should never doubt that the police are ready and able to service and protect.
“Our community gets a fantastic value for their money,” he said. “We have really good people working for us, and they belong to our community.”