Amid ongoing concerns about surveillance and safety, the Los Angeles City Council is expected to vote on Tuesday to accept the donation of a dog-like robot to the LAPD.
The vote will determine whether the department gets the controversial device, which would be paid for with a donation of nearly $280,000 from the Los Angeles Police Foundation. The police commission and the municipality’s public safety commission have approved the move.
The department said it plans to deploy the device in limited scenarios and primarily for reconnaissance. Nicknamed Spot, it can climb stairs, open doors and navigate rugged terrain, giving police a pair of eyes in potentially dangerous situations and keeping officers clear of danger, officials say.
Under department policy, its use would be limited to incidents involving the SWAT team, such as an active shooter, a barricaded suspect, or an explosive device.
As with other police technologies, they are concerned about the potential for abuse to harm and spy on black and brown communities.
Hamid Khan, of the surveillance group Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, said that even if the robot starts with a more favorable goal, the police cannot be trusted to regulate themselves. Throughout history, the LAPD has justified new technology and programs by saying they would only be used in limited circumstances, Khan said.
“There’s a long history of mission creep with the LAPD that what we’ve seen and everything we’ve shouted has suddenly turned into a much broader expansion of its deployment,” he said. “If we go back historically, the helicopter fleet came out first, then we saw the SWAT and that will only happen in certain situations, but SWAT has normalized.”
On social media, critics of the LAPD’s plan have spread news reports of the robot dog’s disastrous deployment in New York City.
The nation’s largest police force first acquired the technology in 2020. Its use only gained widespread attention the following year, when it sparked public outcry after a viral video showed the robot trotting alongside New York City officers during a hostage taking at a high-rise public housing.
Critics slammed the decision to use the device in what they believe is an over-surveilled community, and also raised concerns about privacy and data collection. After several days, the New York City Police Department broke the contract with Boston Dynamics and returned the robot.
LAPD Lieutenant Ruben Lopez, who oversees SWAT, said the department has learned from what happened in New York. In Los Angeles, the police’s “strict policy” for using Spot would ensure that “we don’t abuse it so we can avoid confrontations and things like that with people who don’t want to get arrested,” he said.
The dizzying pace of technology has forced police departments to keep up and made the adoption of devices like Spot “inevitable,” he said.
“We won’t use it for surveillance,” he said, pointing to similar concerns about widespread police surveillance after the LAPD bought drones five years ago. “It’s baseless… we haven’t had any violations.”
As with the department’s drones, their use must be approved by the deputy chief of the counter-terrorism bureau and the police chief must be notified.
The donation has cleared several hurdles, most recently with a 4-1 vote by the council’s public safety committee in January.
Steve Soboroff, a police commissioner, said the device is intended to save lives and fears that the technology will one day be used to spy on or attack people are “ridiculous”. He said the department had been working to devise safeguards against such abuse.
“This is not about perception; it’s not about what it looks like. It’s about saving the lives of the public and saving the lives of police officers and saving the lives of suspects, some of whom are seriously mentally ill and in serious drug use,” he said. “There are no missiles attached to it and no secret chemicals attached to it.”
Several councilors have indicated that they will vote against the robot.
In a Twitter thread, Councilman Hugo Soto-Martínez wrote that the deployment of the robot in New York “is not only disturbing, but deeply unjust. Especially when we talk about low-income renters and communities of color.”
Soto-Martínez, the only “no” vote on the public safety committee, has made known his continued opposition to the robot.
Opposition to the robots has increased in recent months, following uproar over a proposal in San Francisco to weaponize robots to kill people in certain situations. City leaders dropped the plan due to public pressure.
Critics fear it is only a matter of time before other cities push for armaments.
Earlier this year, Boston Dynamics, the company that produces Spot, joined other robotics companies in an open letter condemning the weaponization of robots, saying the practice “will damage public confidence in the technology in a way that harms the enormous benefits they will bring to society. .”
The technology has been used for years in more than 30 countries around the world, the company said.
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Another company, Ghost Robotics, has begun marketing a weaponized dog-like robot to various branches of the US military and its allies. And the four-legged robots were seen trotting around the grounds of the International Defense Exhibition and Conference, an arms exhibition held every two years in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the Emirates.
In addition to the police controversy, Spot has gained benign attention by appearing in viral videos on social media, dancing to pop songs. Earlier this year, Jimmy Fallon featured the robot on an episode of “The Tonight Show,” and Boston Dynamics has highlighted the use of the technology in countries around the world. For example, London’s Heathrow Airport is using one of the robots to create 3D laser scans of a 1960s cargo tunnel that is being refurbished. In Ukraine it is used to sweep for mines.
Across the US, the devices are used in a variety of roles by police departments in cities such as Honolulu and St. Petersburg, Fla. The Department of Homeland Security is considering deploying Ghost Robots robot dogs to help patrol the southern US border.
But experts say efforts to regulate police technology nationwide have been patchy and have largely failed to keep up with new developments in robotics.