Ely Reyes, who built a stellar career in the Austin Police Department while enduring personal tragedies, including the loss of two children, is one of three finalists to become Seattle’s next police chief. Over the next few days, we'll have deep looks at the other finalists.

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AUSTIN, Texas — When the Austin Police Department found itself under U.S. Justice Department scrutiny over police-brutality complaints a decade ago, newly installed Police Chief Art Acevedo looked among the ranks for officers who could help him bring about change.

One he identified was Ely Reyes.

“Ely was a guy that early stood out as an extremely intelligent, competent, thoughtful and dedicated member of the department,” said Acevedo, who became Houston’s police chief in 2016 after spearheading reforms during nine years as Austin’s chief.

Seattle’s next police chief

The Seattle Times is profiling finalists to become the city’s next police chief following the resignation last year of Katherine O’Toole. Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan is expected to make her selection later this month.

Reyes, 47, now an assistant chief in the Texas capital, is one of three people named May 25 as finalists to become Seattle’s next police chief.

The other two were Cameron McLay, a former Pittsburgh police chief; and Eddie Frizell, an inspector in the Minneapolis Police Department.

But the selection process took a stunning turn Saturday with the news that McLay had abruptly withdrawn and that interim Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best, a longtime member of the department whose absence as a finalist unleashed a torrent of community protests, had been added to the list.

Best is now widely expected to get the job and the city has begun talks with McLay, a nationally recognized expert on police reform, about helping the Police Department emerge from federal oversight initiated by the Justice Department.

However, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan said Monday the selection of a chief is wide open, and that she will interview the candidates this week before announcing her choice.

If Reyes were to be selected, Seattle would get a police leader who is not only widely admired for his professional skills, but also for the way he has dealt with personal tragedies. Reyes has lost two of his children to disease and seen his father become a wanted criminal.

He spurned the partying and illegal drug use he witnessed at home during his youth, opting to follow in the footsteps of a revered uncle who had served in the Army, coached baseball and football and became a police officer.

“I grew up looking at my uncle, like, man, you know, that’s what I want to be like,” Reyes said in an interview with The Seattle Times.

Chas Moore, co-founder of the Austin Justice Coalition, talks about what people in Seattle can expect if Ely Reyes, an assistant chief in the Austin Police Department, is chosen to be Seattle’s next police chief. (Steve Miletich / The Seattle Times)

Integrity and skills

Reyes joined the Austin Police Department in 1996 after spending six years in the Army, where he served as a military-police supervisor.

At a time when police were moving toward more community interaction, Reyes, whose father is Mexican-American and whose mother is white, started on the street as a patrol officer, applying his fluency in Spanish to the job.

In 2002, after serving in the motorcycle unit, he was promoted to detective, and became a patrol sergeant five years later. He then transferred to the department’s training academy, where he supervised daily operations.

Reyes was working at the academy when Acevedo was hired as chief in 2007 amid a Justice Department investigation into allegations of racially tinged excessive force on the part of officers, including deadly shootings.

During the investigation, the Justice Department provided the city a list of recommendations to enhance the police department’s policies and procedures.

One of Acevedo’s key moves was overhauling the internal-investigations unit, replacing detectives with more experienced sergeants. Among the first he chose was Reyes because of his integrity and skills, Acevedo recalled in a telephone interview with The Times.

Austin assistant police chief Ely Reyes answers questions during a community meeting in 2015. (Stephen Spillman / The American Statesman)
Austin assistant police chief Ely Reyes answers questions during a community meeting in 2015. (Stephen Spillman / The American Statesman)

“That’s the kind of guy Ely is,” Acevedo said.

Later, Acevedo called on Reyes, who had been promoted to lieutenant, to clean up a scandal in the motorcycle squad involving off-duty work and timekeeping issues. One officer was indicted on a tax-evasion charge and a sergeant was forced to retire.

In 2011, the Justice Department closed its investigation, finding no pattern or practice of constitutional violations. Federal attorneys noted Austin police had implemented nearly all the earlier recommendations.

Reyes continued to move up the ranks and, after Acevedo’s departure, the new police chief, Brian Manley, promoted him to assistant chief in 2016.

He oversees the sprawling north section of this city of 950,000 people known for its barbecue and vibrant music scene.

Acevedo taught him a lot, particularly about building community ties, Reyes said during the interview in his office at Austin police headquarters.

“I would say he is a mentor,” Reyes said.

A different life

Reyes was born in San Jose, California, where he spent most of his school years. His father worked in landscaping; his mother soldered computer chips.

Ely Reyes, an assistant chief in the Austin Police Department who is one of three finalists for the Seattle police-chief job.  (Austin Police Department)
Ely Reyes, an assistant chief in the Austin Police Department who is one of three finalists for the Seattle police-chief job. (Austin Police Department)

Playing baseball and football kept him out of trouble, he said.

In junior high, he recalled, he noticed his friends lived differently. They had nice cars and houses while he shared a room with a brother and lived in a rented house.

“I had to work to buy shoes for basketball,” he said.

His parents hosted friends at their house and held late-night parties. Or they were absent.

“I had a list of bars that they would go to, and that I would call, asking for my mom or dad by name and they knew them there,” he said.

He often spent the night at friends’ houses so he wouldn’t be alone, and eventually realized his parents were likely using drugs after finding cocaine in their house.

“A light bulb went off in my head. Like, oh, now I know what’s happening to all the money,” Reyes said.

In an attempt to get away from drugs and alcohol, his parents moved the family to Eagle Pass, Texas, near the Mexican border, to live with his grandmother. He took with him the influence of his police-officer uncle, his father’s youngest brother, who he had come to know in California.

‘Guns 4 Groceries’

When a wave of bombings hit Austin over several weeks in March, randomly killing two people and injuring others, Reyes helped coordinate the massive response that included hundreds of federal agents.

As the assistant chief in charge of the 911 call center, Reyes devised plans to deal with the flood of calls and deploy K-9s to check suspicious items, said Chief Manley.

In particular, Reyes won praise for quickly calming nerves when a bomb scare at a Goodwill store turned out to be an unrelated mishap involving a military flare.

“There is no reason for us to believe it is related to any of the other incidents that have occurred,” Reyes said at a packed late-evening news conference hours before a suspect detonated a bomb and killed himself.

Reyes, who earned his bachelor’s degree in public administration in 2005 and master’s in management in 2011 from Texas State University, is described by Manley as “incredibly intelligent.”

Using his Spanish-speaking abilities, Reyes has served as an ambassador to the Latino community, explaining how the department deals with immigration issues, Manley said.

Austin officers don’t focus on immigration status, which has boosted crime reporting in the Latino community, according to Reyes.

Reyes launched “Guns 4 Groceries,” a no-questions-asked buyback program that took more than 700 guns off the street in exchange for gift cards funded with private donations.

He is an advocate of data analysis. When he was a lieutenant, he examined the department’s pursuit practices after a fleeing vehicle killed an innocent victim. Among the findings was that crashes were more likely when officers chased a stolen car since the driver didn’t own the vehicle.

As a result, officers who come upon a stolen car fire a projectile with a GPS tracker into the vehicle instead of risking a high-speed pursuit.

“He’s just a doer,” said Ken Casaday, president of the Austin Police Association, the union that represents 1,908 officers.

Officers sometimes view him as too narrow-minded when judging their conduct, failing to see the “gray area” they face in their jobs, Casaday said.

But overall Reyes is a “really good communicator,” Casaday said, and has been part of a culture shift in which Acevedo also held supervisors accountable.

Acting Police Chief Brian Manley, right, honors assistant police chief Ely Reyes in a pinning ceremony with Reyes’ wife, Romnee, on hand to help with the pinning. (Ralph Barrera / Austin American-Statesman)
Acting Police Chief Brian Manley, right, honors assistant police chief Ely Reyes in a pinning ceremony with Reyes’ wife, Romnee, on hand to help with the pinning. (Ralph Barrera / Austin American-Statesman)

Reaching out

Nelson Linder, who has been president of the NAACP’s Austin branch for the past 18 years and requested the Justice Department investigation, said Reyes has demonstrated the same willingness to deal with community demands as Acevedo.

“Having seen him and a lot of officers in that position over the years, I rate him as part of the top 1 percent,” Linder said.

Problems remain, such as racial profiling among Austin’s 7.5 percent African-American population, Linder said. But along with more accountability, the lines of communication and ability to resolve differences are better, he said.

Reyes will engage with the community if he is named Seattle’s chief, and reach out to officers while maintaining a “no nonsense” approach and demanding high standards, Linder said.

Chas Moore, co-founder of the Austin Justice Coalition, a grass-roots social-and-racial-justice organization he started in 2015 as a byproduct of the Black Lives Matter movement, said his group worked cooperatively with Reyes on a body-camera policy.

“He is kind of a mirror of where our department is right now,” Moore said. “I always tell people I’m willing to lose my street cred by saying that I think our police department is moving in the right direction.”

The department grasps the role of policing in the current political and social climate, doing its best to bolster relationships, particularly in the black, immigrant and marginalized communities that have been historically oppressed, Moore said.

For example, Moore said, the department accepted most of the recommendations of his group in formulating a policy to de-escalate confrontations.

But it’s taken prodding to bring about incremental change, he said.

Seattle has wrestled with the same issues since entering into a court-ordered consent decree with the Justice Department in 2012, which required reforms to address excessive force and biased policing.

Earlier this year, a federal judge found Seattle police had met the terms of the agreement. But the city must show the reforms are locked in place over a two-year review period.

Reyes believes he’s well-positioned to help Seattle do that in light of his experience in Austin working on Justice Department recommendations.

“Lasting reform does not happen overnight and will require a cultural change from the top down,” he wrote as part of his application for the Seattle police-chief job.

Reyes is also familiar with other issues facing Seattle: Austin, a Democratic bastion in a Republican-dominated state, is also wrestling with gentrification, rising housing prices and homelessness.

“Being homeless is not a crime,” Reyes said in the interview, explaining the police should focus on criminal activity.

Ely Reyes talks to the media about an explosion at a South Austin Goodwill Store last March. (Reshma Kirpalani / The American Statesman)
Ely Reyes talks to the media about an explosion at a South Austin Goodwill Store last March. (Reshma Kirpalani / The American Statesman)

Grief and loss

On Oct. 16, 2002, Reyes’ 22-month-old son, Tyler, died from a rare genetic disease that affected his brain development.

Reyes and his wife had another son, Jay, who had been born in 1997, but their marriage didn’t survive the loss.

When he was 16, Jay was diagnosed with bone cancer in his left leg.

Reyes had remarried and because his wife, Romnee, was a nurse they were able to do a lot of the treatment at home, he said, citing her support throughout their marriage.

The cancer disappeared for six months — then returned.

Jay died on Oct. 6, 2016, just before his 19th birthday.

Reyes and his wife, who have taken in 11 foster kids in the past several years, also have a 10-year-old daughter and an 8-year-old son.

Reyes also has dealt with estrangement from his father. While he was growing up, Reyes said, his father periodically hit his mother.

While home from the Army, Reyes recounted, he offered to help his mother and a sister move to another state to escape his father. Informed the two had left, his father told Reyes he was no longer his son, although the two had limited dealings after that.

One of those times occurred after his father was arrested in Texas. He told Reyes the arrest was for family violence; it turned out to be for attempted indecency with a 13-year-old girl.

When his father later suffered a major heart attack, Reyes said, he learned he might not survive surgery and went to see him. He showed him pictures of grandchildren he had never met.

In a waiting room, a female cousin shared with Reyes, in the most ugly terms, what his father had said about him and his police job.

After a nurse reported that his father was going to be OK, Reyes walked out of the hospital.

“That’s the last time I ever saw him,” Reyes said.

His father, who was convicted and placed on probation, has since absconded and is currently a fugitive.

Reyes said his life experiences have allowed him to not stress over things and to show empathy toward others dealing with adversity.

He also spends time with middle-school students whose parents are incarcerated, to let them know that doesn’t define them.

 

Correction, July 10: An earlier version of this story misspelled the first name of interim Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best.