A divided Los Angeles City Council approved the donation of a “robot dog” for the police department on Tuesday, May 23, over the objections of activists who claimed the controversial technology would be used for illegal surveillance — particularly of people of color.
In an 8-4 vote, the council accepted the donation to the police department of a $278,000 “quadruped unmanned ground vehicle,” colloquially known as a robot dog, from the non-profit Los Angeles Police Foundation.
Councilmembers Heather Hutt, Curren Price, Nithya Raman and Hugo Soto-Martinez cast dissenting votes. Two other councilmembers, Marqueece Harris-Dawson and Eunisses Hernandez, were absent. Hernandez expressed concerns over the use of robot dogs at a previous meeting.
Proponents of robot dogs, that somewhat resemble a four-legged dog and can be used on different terrains, say the technology will save lives by sending a robot into dangerous scenarios such as barricades or standoffs, or in situations that might involve explosives.
Opponents of robot dogs are concerned that law enforcement will use the technology for inappropriate surveillance purposes, and to harass the public.
Critics have voiced skepticism about how the technology will be used despite repeated assurances from LAPD representatives that the robot would be used only in SWAT incidents, situations involving hazardous-materials or search-and-rescue operations.
LAPD officials previously said the robot would not be equipped with weapons or facial-recognition technology, nor would it be used for patrol operations.
Brendan Schulman, vice president of policy and government relations with Boston Dynamics, which manufactures “Spot,” the robot dog that the L.A. City Council approved, told the council on Tuesday that the company’s goal is that the technology will help people.
“There’s no mysterious end-game here. We set out 30 years ago to make robots that would help humanity,” Schulman said, as some members of the public in the council chamber scoffed.
Schulman cited an example of a shootout incident in another city in which a man was shot in the chest by a police officer. By sending in a robot dog first, officers could see that the shooter had dropped his gun and was in danger of dying, and they sent in medical staff.
“Had they not sent the robot in to understand the situation, to see that a person was disarmed but at risk of dying, that person would be dead today,” Schulman said.
But not every councilmember was convinced of the need for a robot dog in L.A.
Soto-Martinez, repeating a point made by a few members of the public at the meeting, said that while the robot dog offered to LAPD this time is a donation, he’s concerned there will be permanent costs to the city due to ongoing training for officers to use the technology.
Some members of the public cited the LAPD’s acquisition of drones, a program they say has expanded. They expressed concern that adding robot dogs to the LAPD’s tool box would lead to a militarized state.
Soto-Martinez, noting a backlash that took place after the New York Police Department in 2021 used a robot dog at a public housing building, and its potential use at U.S.-Mexico border crossings, said he could not support bringing the technology to L.A.
“This item is being painted as merely an acceptance of a donation, but it really represents an expansion of the current boundaries around policing and surveillance,” Soto-Martinez said.
He called it a “highly disturbing automation of law enforcement that sets a dangerous precedent.”
Although no councilmember who voted to accept the robot dog donation commented on Tuesday, some explained their positions at a council discussion on March 7. At that meeting, Councilmember Traci Park said the robot “will enhance safety for law enforcement and Angelenos by providing police officers with very much needed situational awareness technology in extremely high-risk situations.”
LAPD Deputy Chief David Kowalski told the council before its vote on May 23 that the department got positive feedback from law enforcement agencies in California who use robot dogs, including Oakland – whose police department called it a “game changer” and “risk mitigator” – as well as the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department and the Fremont Police Department in the Bay Area.
Councilmember Katy Yaroslavsky proposed a successful amendment to the motion to accept the robot dog donation, which instructs the LAPD to provide quarterly reports about the use of the robot dog, including information about where and why it was used, the outcome of the deployment, and any issues that arose.
The amended motion also stated that the City Council plans to closely monitor the program and may modify the deployment policy or suspend the program in the future.
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