As all SFA alumni can attest, their time spent at the university prepared them in myriad ways for their careers. When Ryan Holt ’95 stepped onto SFA’s campus in 1993, he had little idea just how much those moments, semesters and years as an SFA student would impact his occupation.
Holt transferred to SFA during his sophomore year. A Bryan, Texas, native, Holt was destined to begin his higher education in College Station. He enrolled there as a business major but later decided to change it to criminal justice and move away from the crowded classrooms.
After visiting the three Texas schools with the top criminal justice programs in the state, Holt enrolled at SFA. That decision set his career path in motion.
Today, Holt serves as the Waco chief of police and oversees 346 employees — 247 of them sworn police officers. He is responsible for an annual departmental budget of $36 million. As Texas’ 25th largest city, Waco has a population of approximately 135,000.
Area attractions such as the Dr Pepper Museum, Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum, and the Texas Sports Hall of Fame drew approximately 658,000 visitors to the city in 2015. Holt said with the popularity of the television show “Fixer Upper” and the opening of Magnolia Market at the Silos, Waco hosted 2.1 million visitors in 2016. The “Fixer Upper effect,” as Holt calls it, should continue to drastically impact tourist numbers.
As Holt began his classes at SFA, he said he immediately noticed the difference in the way classes were taught and the number of students in them. “My previous university was very large, and the class experience always felt very impersonal,” Holt said. “I immediately felt at home at SFA. The classes were small enough that the professors knew the students and were interested in their success.”
Holt points to former professors of criminal justice Drs. John Harlan and Patrick Mueller as two of his favorite SFA mentors. “They both put effort into ensuring students absorbed the concepts rather than just running through the academic motions of instructing class,” Holt said. “Serving as an adjunct criminal justice instructor, I have tried to emulate their teaching style.”
Additionally, he credits Pat Spence, the former director of student publications at SFA, with leaving a lasting impression on him. With a minor in mass communication, Holt served as a photographer and sports editor for SFA’s student newspaper, The Pine Log. He also was the editor of the Stone Fort yearbook. In these roles, he spent many hours working alongside Spence and student-journalists to produce the publications.
“Pat corralled a bunch of students into producing a weekly student newspaper and annual yearbook,” Holt said. “Pat was subtle in her methods, but she always got her point across. She instilled a work ethic and team spirit that made for life lessons. I would later have the good fortune of working around very good leaders in law enforcement, but Pat was one of the first people I ever dealt with in a managerial position who was a true leader.”
Holt joined the Waco Police Department in 1996. Starting as a patrol officer and serving in every division of the department, he has worked as a crisis and hostage negotiator, public information officer, SWAT supervisor and special deputy for the Lone Star Fugitive Task Force. He was promoted to assistant chief of police in 2008 and was named chief of police in December 2016 after a nationwide search yielded a field of 83 applicants.
Throughout his career, lessons learned at SFA have served Holt well and helped lead him to success at law enforcement-related settings like the FBI National Academy, the Senior Management Institute for Police at Boston University and the Law Enforcement Management Institute of Texas, as well as providing the necessary foundation to acquire a master’s degree.
His SFA education also has been the backbone of his work with the Waco Police Department. In summer 2003, Holt was assigned to supervise the department’s unit that housed public information. In June 2003, Baylor University basketball player Patrick Dennehy was reported missing.
“Overnight, satellite trucks and reporters descended on Waco to report on the story,” Holt said. “As time passed, it became a homicide case. I served as spokesperson for the department and held a number of press conferences, which were covered by news outlets from around the world. My background working on The Pine Log played a role in my ability to serve as a public information officer in that high-profile case.”
Additionally, Holt had the responsibility of helping ensure the safety of the president of the United States. After George W. Bush was elected president in 2001, Bush would frequently fly to Texas and host dignitaries at his ranch in Crawford, Texas — just outside of Waco. As a helicopter pilot and SWAT supervisor during that time, Holt had a number of experiences related to visiting presidents, kings, queens, princes, prime ministers and other heads of state.
“When the president would fly into Central Texas, Air Force One landed at Texas State Technical Institute Airport in Waco,” Holt said. “President Bush would then use Marine One to fly to the ranch, or he would utilize a motorcade. A presidential motorcade is a significant undertaking involving lots of moving parts. During his eight years in the White House, the Waco Police Department was the primary agency that assisted the Secret Service with his protection. All told, we helped provide more than 400 high-security movements for the president and visiting dignitaries.”
Holt said his favorite part of the job as police chief is working alongside fellow police officers, who go to work prepared to pay the ultimate sacrifice for the community.
“I have personally witnessed officers run toward gunfire disregarding their own safety,” Holt said. “I have seen them take money from their own pockets to ensure families and children don’t go hungry or without presents on Christmas Day. I have seen them arrange birthday parties for children in the community who would otherwise go without. I have seen these officers extend compassion to the victimized, and I have seen them do the difficult things with honor and integrity — the things that society calls on police to do when no one else is up to the task.”
Holt said his least favorite aspect of the job is the way it changes those who choose to serve.
“Unfortunately, our staff sees most people at their absolute worst,” Holt said. “The things that you see, hear, smell and feel in this profession inevitably change a person over time. That stress, coupled with the false narrative in the mainstream media about police officers as a profession, makes our work more difficult than it has to be.”
Though many police departments in larger cities have experienced heightened scrutiny in the past few years, Holt said that his department’s relationship with the community remains supportive.
“We have been blessed that we enjoy tremendous community support,” Holt said. “Much of my daily interaction is with community and city leadership to help ensure that the department is serving the needs of the city and that we are being good stewards of the resources entrusted to us."
Although Waco has seen remarkable residential and economic growth, Holt said the city has experienced a 10-year reduction in crime rates — a trend he hopes to see continue.
“This is the community where I have chosen to raise my family,” Holt said. “This is my community, too, and I want it to be the best for all citizens.”