New police chief Kamran Afzal discusses plans for Dayton Police Department

Kamran Afzal was sworn in as Dayton’s new police chief on Dec. 20, replacing former chief Richard Biehl after 13 years of service. He now leads a department of 368 sworn officers, 39 civilian employees and manages an annual budget of $57 million. We recently spoke with the new police chief in his office about his background and plans for the department.

Editor’s Note: This interview was edited for brevity and clarity. Listen to the full interview on the Dayton Path Forward Podcast.

Welcome to Dayton. Why did you decide to take the job?

I think it was an ideal size department for me. I grew up in Arlington, Virginia, just a little bit smaller than Dayton. This is also only about six hours away from my wife’s family in Canada. And the focus of the city as a whole, understanding that common viability is the answer. That was encouraging because I saw that where I grew up and learned that building equity for all people eventually helps all of us. In the police department, we’re in a place where we react to things that are way beyond our control. Poverty and lack of educational attainment, a lot of those things are factors as to why we have a higher than national average crime rate. So the fact that there was an understanding of that was very attractive. And lastly, your commissioners run really good meetings. I wasn’t used to getting meetings done in an hour. All of that plays a part into how the city is perceived and run.

What’s your impression of Dayton now that you’ve been here for a few months?

I’ve come to realize that there’s a lot of work to be done. The ARPA funding that’s coming might help get rid of some of these abandoned homes that add to the chaos. There’s a lot of volume here. Our officers are running ragged. There is more chaos than I’ve ever encountered as a police officer.

You mentioned the ARPA funding. What do you hope that could be used for, from a law enforcement perspective?

Obviously, you’re always a little selfish about funding. I think what will help us as an organization and as a city is to address the inequity issues that are historically built into a lot of communities. If you’re a healthier community from an economic perspective, there’s better equity and that eventually translates to fewer calls for service or fewer critical calls. I think a lot of the focus is about how to bring people who are a little bit more disadvantaged, historically, to bring them up to par. I think it will help all of us and I think it will lessen the stress on law enforcement officers and allow us to retain people who might otherwise leave the force.

What’s something you’re proud of over the course of your career prior to coming to Dayton?

I’m proud of the fact that I can recognize when to get out of the way. Innovation occurs when you give people the room to innovate. I’m proud of being able to have a collaborative approach internally and externally. I’ve worked with some really smart people and sometimes the best thing that you can do is learn how to get out of their way.

You worked for the US Capitol Police in ‘91. How did you feel watching the events of Jan. 6 last year?

Not because I worked there, but just as an observation on the deterioration of society. When something bad is committed by somebody you don’t like, you call that out. But when the same thing is committed by people who you like or support, it’s still not okay and you should call that out.

I’m not political person. And I’ve seen that history in my native country where it became very polarizing. In Pakistan in the 70s, you saw the right side of the religious right take hold of things. And being a Muslim was not good enough, you had to to be my kind of Muslim, right? It’s the same thing that I see now. On both left and right, it’s just not good enough to be whoever you are. You have to be my kind.

The world is too complex and we share so many commonalities. I think what bothered me more than anything else wasn’t the fact that people did what they did on Jan. 6. It’s that we tried to justify it. The right did that, and then I understand the anger that came out of the summer of 2020, but then justifying the very people’s businesses who are disadvantaged and being okay with that makes no sense. Consistency is important, right?

You mentioned that you’re from Karachi, Pakistan?

Born in Karachi, Pakistan. My father’s family is from northwestern part of Pakistan. My mom’s family is more from Kashmir. So I was born in Karachi because my dad was a naval officer.

Dayton prides itself in being a welcoming city and we have initiatives like Welcome Dayton. How does your background and your experience there inform your worldview today?

I have my own lens. That doesn’t make it right or wrong. Being raised in a different land, I think at times I’m more appreciative of the democratic values that that we have and that we should have. I’m very proud of our Constitution because it’s based on individual liberties. It’s not based on collective good and that’s unique even with Western democracies. Being of Pakistani descent and being a police officer has given me a different lens.

What do you feel will be your biggest challenge as the chief of the Dayton Police Department?

I think managing realistic expectations. Change doesn’t happen instantaneously. Change happens gradually. You want to deliver the high level of service that we provide and employ the most unbiased, professional, empathetic and sympathetic officers. It’s utopian, but I think that’s what you want to do. It’s aspirational.

Data from 2020 shows that use of force incidents declined more than 14% over 2019 and use of force incidents involving white men and black women have declined sharply. Incidents involving black men, however, have increased slightly. Is that surprising to you? And does this suggest ongoing work on police reform is important?

You have to look at things in a larger context, right? You have to look at who’s been victimized in this city. So if you just look at just one demographic, you will say okay, this is disparate treatment... but you have to look deeper. You have to look at the economic conditions that people are living in. As part of the police reform process, we have a use of force committee that is looking at data as to why those incidents happen and what can be done better. I just I know that common conditions play a big part in it and the equity aspect plays a big part in it.

The police reform committees were developed before your time here, but how do you feel about the progress and the recommendations that came out of the working groups?

For some of these aspirational goals, understand that you have to build the foundations first. Don’t be discouraged if things don’t move right away, because we want to make sure that they move in a way that they are everlasting. People don’t like me when I say that. But the reality is that courts favor police officers. Because unlike what happened in George Floyd’s case, we don’t have that much time to react. We have seconds to make a decision. That’s why the courts usually side with the police. They understand the context we work in.

We have to make sure that people understand what do, because we are not good at telling our story. There’s a lot of great work that occurs in this community, in this department. Sometimes it’s not sexy, and sometimes the media doesn’t pick up on it because nobody got hurt. So part of that is working through how to use our platforms that we have in social media to highlight that work, to show we’re not heartless individuals. We need to tell a better story.

There is an incredible amount of distrust of institutions, whether it’s police or the media. What do you think can be done to get through to those who have become so distrustful?

Every interaction is important. Our job that you as the community have given us is about confrontation. You’re not calling me for a barbecue. You’re calling me when something has gone awry. There are going to be incidents where it’s not going to look very pretty, but that’s the job that we’ve been given.

That’s a reality that we live with, and I get it that some of those factors affect people of color more than anybody else. I’m a brown man myself. So I can empathize. I still don’t excuse individual behavior, but I have to understand that part of it. So being understanding and knowing what we go through every every day, doesn’t mean that we can’t be better. We can be better and we should be better.

When we respond, we have to treat it as if that’s the first and last time you’re going see that individual. That’s the cultural part of it. We’re trying to do some things to put more bodies on the on the street and work within our strength that we have to hopefully alleviate some of the stress that we are experiencing and create a department in which patrol is where you do community policing, not a specialty unit.

I don’t have a great policy that will suddenly allow that relationship to improve. We can highlight some of the stuff that we put out on our social media that talks about some of the softer things that we do, because those are important and that work does happen every day.

Surveillance technologies, such as license plate readers and gunshot detection detection systems have come under scrutiny by some members of the community and there has been some pushback. What is your opinion on their purpose and their efficacy?

I can tell you that technology helps, but it’s not the panacea. It provides you ability to respond quicker. The notion that we are looking at every single license plate that goes through is incorrect. You only look at that data if something bad happens in an area. In Virginia, we only looked at the data when somebody said hey, there’s a robbery that occurred and there was a car and I wonder if I have a license plate reader in the area to pick that up. We just don’t have that much time, otherwise. My officers are busy in the western part of town and about 85% of the time they’re on a call for service. You still got to give a half hour lunch break, two 15 minute breaks and then really, they come and check in and they go out check out. They don’t have time to look at data. You only look when you need to look at it.

Obviously, you need to have mechanisms to make sure that people are not looking at or using the data for nefarious purposes. I think a lot of the immigrant population has concerns and, being an immigrant myself, I’m telling you that we are not looking at data and saying “immigrant, go here.” It just doesn’t happen that way.

ShotSpotter is the same thing in that it gives us the ability to respond quicker. It is still not the panacea. I still need people to pick up the phone when they hear a gunshot or somebody heard saying the shooting occurred here because I know you can pinpoint pretty close, but it doesn’t give you who was in that neighborhood when the shooting occurred. You know, what was the lookout you know? You know, was it a white guy was a black guy was a was a female? What was a car being driven at that time? So it gives you the information to get there quicker, but it’s still not the panacea.

What’s one thing that you hope to accomplish this year that you believe will have an important impact on the community?

I have made some recommendations around how the department is structured and I can’t get into details yet, but I think they will set us for success. And if I can make the community-oriented policing aspect of it prevalent in patrol, which exists now but is not really a cultural part of it. I think that that will make us more effective in how we deliver our services. I think that’d be a that’d be an achievement. I’m not sure how big it will be but I will tell would be something that I’m focused.

What concerns you most about the future of law enforcement?

The narrative that’s out there, that this is not a worthy profession to go into, especially for people of color, because I need more women and people of color to be interested in law enforcement to bring a different lens. So some of the verbiage that I’ve heard the last two years is doing exactly the opposite of what should be done, because it dissuades people, especially people who are from disadvantaged brown or Black communities. If they don’t feel comfortable pursuing this line of work, it pushes us behind further. Because we are getting more brown in our country, right? You want to give people the voice and the way to do that is to bring people into your organization to provide that advice bring a different lens. You know, I definitely have a different lens because of the background that I have. It doesn’t make me better. It just allows me to provides my lens to somebody else and say “consider it from this perspective.”