See Spot Run Amok?

Cityside Column: Critics warns of dire consequences after L.A. city council aprroves $278,000 robot dog for police work

A timeless family dynamic is that of children begging their parents for a dog. The discussions are lengthy and impassioned, with promises of responsibility extracted. Usually, the parental set caves and the pooch comes home.

That scenario is now playing out on a municipal scale, though with metal and wire instead of paws and fur.

In January, the Los Angeles Police Department took its request to accept the donation of a $278,000 robot dog to the City Council’s Public Safety Committee, saying it would help in combating crime. The panel voted 4-1 to accept the gift from the nonprofit Los Angeles Police Foundation, and the matter moved to the full council in March. The discussion was lengthy and impassioned, and ended with a sort of parental, “We’ll mull it over,” with the council opting to delay its vote for 60 days. On Tuesday morning, robopooch padded back to Council chambers.

There was more than an hour of public comment, with a string of speakers bashing the proposal, often in four-letter terms, and warning that a robot dog is a step toward a dystopian future, and that Black and Brown communities will come under surveillance from high technology. In the end the council rejected an entreaty from District 13 rep Hugo Soto-Martinez, and voted 8-4 to accept the device.

As is often the case in City Hall, the vote does not resolve everything—there remains a divide that, essentially, comes down to one’s take on policing: Those who trust that LAPD brass will do what they promise, voted Aye. The skeptics ticked No.

The route to the moment was circuitous. It began with the Police Foundation proposing to give the department what is technically called a “quadruped unmanned ground vehicle,” or QUGV. Both are cumbersome to say, and the device, created by the robotics firm Boston Dynamics, has the decidedly friendlier nickname Spot.

Online videos show how Spot, while not cute and cuddly, has a canine look and operating manner. Law enforcement is just one of its applications.

During the Public Safety Committee meeting in January, LAPD Deputy Chief David Kowalski, who oversees the department’s Counter-Terrorism and Special Operations Bureau, described how the 60-pound machine has an amalgam of cameras and sensors that allow it to climb stairs and open doors. It was pitched as a piece of tech that could, for example, be sent into a building with a barricaded, gun-wielding suspect, so as not to put officers in danger.

Spot has been rolled out in other communities, with inconsistent results. It was deployed in New York City in 2020, with the moniker Digidog, though backlash the next year prompted the NYPD to return it.

The Terminator films’ Skynet, the Black Mirror episode “Metalhead” and the eight-legged mechanical hound from Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 all serve as dire warnings of what Spot could lead to in a militarized future. Past misconduct by the LAPD and other branches of law enforcement has progressives, and those who have felt the heavy hand of police, particularly leery. Kowalski testified that Spot would only be deployed in a specific, limited set of situations, that there would be strict oversight, and that it won’t be equipped with guns, lasers or facial recognition software. But there is a stubborn belief among Spot opponents that any promises now will be fudged in the future.

Even before the Public Safety Committee meeting, Soto-Martinez tweeted that he would vote against accepting the device. Police Chief Michel Moore expressed his frustration. “I’ve heard the description of the mechanical robot as Orwellian,” he said during a March 14 Police Commission meeting, “and that if the device was approved that it would be weaponized and used to harm communities of color. This is simply not true.”

After the vote approving Spot on Tuesday, Soto-Martinez  took to Twitter, lamenting, “This is a highly disturbing automation of law enforcement that sets a dangerous precedent for our future.”

Still, the vote is settled, and Spot is on its way to Los Angeles.

Just don’t expect to see Soto-Martinez taking it for a walk any time soon.