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Charleston Police Chief Luther Reynolds (center) talks with residents Herb Mahan (right) and Lee Moultrie during a listening session earlier this month after a double homicide in West Ashley. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

On a hot evening in early August, Charleston Police Chief Luther Reynolds stood in front of an audience gathered inside a school cafeteria, addressing a community still reeling from a grisly double homicide weeks before.

An argument between a group of teens broke out on July 15 at a nearby apartment complex. Talekuz Williams, 15, shot 17-year-old Juquel Young to death, then 17-year-old Zamere Brown fatally shot Williams, according to arrest affidavits.

Reynolds had one overarching message for the community: Come together and use the shootings as a call to action.

"We as a police department can't do that by ourselves," he told the crowd of residents, neighborhood leaders and officers gathered at West Ashley Advanced Studies Magnet. "The only way is with building relationships."

Since taking over the Charleston Police Department in April, Reynolds has been getting to know the Holy City and its diverse residents. He has attended community meetings and church services, and has met with leaders and ordinary residents. He has held news conferences after major crimes and released information on the resignation of an officer over alleged drug use.

Though Reynolds is only a few months into his tenure, many say his proactive, extroverted style is a step in the right direction for policing a city that continues to grapple with a long legacy of racial inequality and the 2015 hate-motivated mass shooting at Emanuel AME Church.

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Charleston Police Chief Luther Reynolds talks with Monica Jefferson after a July 18, 2018, news conference where he announced the arrest of Zamere Brown in Juquel Young's slaying. Jefferson lost her son to gun violence in 2013. File/Brad Nettles/Staff

After the double homicide, he assembled various community stakeholders to announce Brown's arrest and speak out against violence. Among those who spoke was Monica Jefferson, whose son Malcolm was killed in a 2013 shooting.

Jefferson, who serves as an advocate against violent crime, has met Reynolds twice and was struck by his openness and willingness to engage, she said. 

"I just hope that he gets out there and makes himself very personable with the community, makes everybody in the community comfortable with him," she said. "People will start talking more because if they're comfortable, they won't feel as though they're being targeted all the time." 

Reynolds, for his part, said he's working hard to lead by example.

"Some of the communities that need police the most are communities that trust police the least," he told The Post and Courier. "How do we build that dialogue? … I’m a big believer that it’s not about gimmicks. People look to me as the chief to be present, to listen and to show that the Police Department cares."

'Some real changes'

In July, shortly after an 11-year-old Danish girl was killed while walking on a downtown sidewalk, Reynolds stepped in front of TV cameras and expressed anger over impaired driving, discussing methods to crack down on the problem.

A month before that, his department publicly announced the resignation of an officer who had failed a drug test. The officer patrolled the city's public housing complexes.

The chief said he wanted to err on the side of providing such information to the public for the sake of transparency.

Part of that work has been meeting with community leaders such as Charleston Branch NAACP President Dot Scott and the Rev. Kylon Middleton, the pastor at Mount Zion AME Church who also leads the city's Illumination Project outreach effort.

Scott sees in Reynolds someone who strives to be a bridge builder, and his willingness to be out in the community is a good sign, she said. 

His strategy appears to be headed in the right direction, Scott said.

With events like the death of Denzel Curnell, whose suicide during a confrontation with a city police officer in 2014 stirred tension in Charleston's black community, it's more important than ever to build trust, Scott said. 

"It makes the (slavery) apology we just got a statement of good intention," she said. And it's time for officials to back up their words with actions, she explained.

Ultimately, Scott said she recognizes that the issues Charleston's black residents are facing aren't for police to solve alone.

"If it doesn't happen in City Hall, then it doesn't happen in law enforcement," she said. "I hope this chief is able to stay here long enough that we'll have some real changes that will benefit the minority community."

'Build those relationships'

For Middleton, who works directly with the chief on the Illumination Project, positive signs are not hard to spot.

"I have seen first hand ... he has been extremely open to receiving perspectives from those who've been here," he said.

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Charleston Police Chief Luther Reynolds (center) holds hands with Kylon Middleton (left) for a closing prayer with community members during a listening session Monday, August 6, 2018, in response to recent homicides. Andrew J. Whitaker/ Staff

Part of what enables Reynolds to connect with all facets of Charleston's communities is his background. 

After the death of his mother when he was 13, he was left without a strong parenting base at home because his father worked a lot, the chief said.

"I was getting in fights," Reynolds said. "I was not really a happy kid."

But there was always someone in his life — a teacher, a coach, a pastor — pushing him to strive for better things, he said. 

"I knew I wanted to go to college," Reynolds said. "I did internships with a police department in Maryland, and I was around other men and women of integrity. Some of them became mentors. They encouraged me to be excited about helping people."

Reynolds hopes to get to know the Charleston community more.

He knows that there may be incidents or topics that strain the relationship between residents and police. But he's confident that a culture of trust and understanding will carry the community and police through those challenges.

"We as leaders have got to educate ourselves, be good communicators and be empathetic," he said. "The more that we build those relationships, the more effective we’re going to be."

Reach Gregory Yee at 843-937-5908. Follow him on Twitter @GregoryYYee.

Gregory Yee covers breaking news and public safety. He's a native Angeleno and previously covered crime and courts for the Press-Telegram in Long Beach, CA. He studied journalism and Spanish literature at the University of California, Irvine.