Don’t Worry About Crime, Folks: Robot Police Dogs Are Coming to L.A.

It’s a hot debate if and how crime is truly on the rise, but LAPD just bought itself a $280,000 canine terminator robot to sort things out

As San Francisco officials learned recently, people get skittish when you mention killer police robots, fearing a city patrolled by heartless, mindless, lethal drones. But if they’re heartless, mindless, dog-like drones, the Los Angeles Police Department is betting people will be perfectly chill, since it just dropped nearly $280,000 on its very own canine patrol droid, Spot.

As the Los Angeles Times reports, the Boston Dynamics-made Spot weighs 70 pounds, stands 28 inches, and moves with alarming grace on four hydraulic legs—able to climb stairs, open doors, and transmit 360-degree video from tiny cameras inside its diamond shaped head. Lean, mean, and black with yellow markings, this Black+Decker police Doberman has already freaked out citizens of one major U.S. city.

In 2020, New York City acquired the robot, painted it blue, renamed it Digidog and deployed it with the NYPD. Within a year, social media blew up with video of this robo-canine/preying mantis hybrid patrolling housing projects, causing Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to tweet, quite reasonably, that “robotic surveillance ground drones are being deployed for testing on low-income communities of color with under-resourced schools.” Soon after, the city broke its contract and sent back the hellish quadruped.

Last month, LAPD Chief Michel Moore said the department had learned from New York’s experience, announcing his department’s plans to adopt Spot, with funding raised by the L.A. Police Foundation. Moore said police would use the robodog for surveillance in a “narrow set” of dangerous situations.

But some fear mission creep. UC Davis law professor Elizabeth Joh, a specialist in police, privacy, and technology, says local officials’ “piecemeal efforts” to regulate the technology lag behind actual developments in robotic tech.

“Most of the way we think about how the law regulates police assumes a human being making human decisions in a face-to-face encounter with the public,” Joh told the Times. “But the more and more we use this technology, there is increasing reliance by police on machine-made decisions.”

Boston Dynamics claims that pushback against their product comes from simple misunderstanding. “One of the big challenges is accurately describing the state of the technology to people who have never had personal experience with it,” Michael Perry, then-vice president of business development, said last year, shortly before leaving the firm. “Most people are applying notions from science fiction to what the robot’s doing.”

The company’s image-management efforts have even won Spot a certain level of celebrity: he’s been seen performing 3-D laser scans of cargo tunnels in Heathrow Airport, sweeping for mines in Ukraine, and, early this year, stealing a scene from Jimmy Fallon on The Tonight Show, where it and Boston Dynamics CEO Robert Playter upgraded David Letterman fave “Stupid Pet Tricks” as Spot scampered round the NBC soundstage, sitting, standing, and strutting like a horse performing dressage, its bullet-shaped head scanning left and right as if it might launch an RPG at any moment.

Contrary to tech-dystopic parodies of its commercials—and the classic robot warnings—Spot is less attack dog than surveillance tool. Transmitting real-time data to an officer that controls its movements with a tablet-like device, Spot can be equipped with a mechanical arm to open doors or with sensors to detect dangerous chemicals or radiation, or, as in Hawaii, to scan the eyes of unhoused people to determine if they have a fever.

According to Geoff Alpert, a University of South Carolina criminology professor who studies police use of force, the key question is not whether Spot should be used but who’s holding its leash.

“No one is saying you give the machine the authority to make a decision” whether to use deadly force, Alpert said. “We’re just saying the decision has been made, now let’s apply it with a machine as opposed to a person.”

Even so, this composite-and-steel cop’s best friend may have a hard time finding civilian fans.

“With several cities in California considering policies to govern law enforcement’s use of deadly force by remotely-operated equipment, it is time to begin discussions about these devices,” San Diego Assemblywoman Akilah Weber, tweeted last week as she introduced a bill to “regulate, limit, and require the reporting of the use of deadly force by a law enforcement agency by means of remotely-operated equipment.”

No matter how cute the equipment is.

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