Monday, June 24, 2024

The Curious Incident of the Robot Dog in the City Council Meeting

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If you’re looking to spark a frothy conversation in Los Angeles, there are two reliably evergreen topics: law enforcement and animals.

Well, the Los Angeles Police Department had figured out a way to bring them together. Then the department outdid itself with a third, reliably controversial subject: futuristic technology. As this wind-up should lead any Angeleno to assume, this ignited yet another fight between supporters and opponents of the LAPD. However, the battleground this week veered off its traditional landscapes, such as how the department interacts with people experiencing homelessness or a confrontation between officers and protesters. Rather than a debate on the present actions of L.A.’s cops, this tangle concerned the future—specifically, the deployment of a robot dog.

On Tuesday afternoon, the City Council’s Public Safety Committee took up a proposal to accept a donation to the LAPD from the nonprofit Los Angeles Police Foundation. The LAPD formally refers to the $277,917.80 device as a “quadruped unmanned ground vehicle,” or QUGV—both really roll off the tongue, don’t they? But when Deputy Chief David Kowalski walked the five-person Council committee through the ins and outs of the machine, he used a far more digestible four-letter word, calling the robot “Spot.”

Spot comes from a Massachusetts company called Boston Dynamics. It’s a four-legged, 60-pound mass of metal powered by a rechargeable battery pack. It is full of sensors and cameras that allow it to climb stairs, open doors, and avoid obstacles with the help of a companion holding a controller.

“It moves similar to a dog,” said Kowalski, who helms the LAPD’s Counter-Terrorism and Special Operations Bureau.

The robot dog and similar technology are proving to be controversial in other law enforcement arenas. One rolled—or trotted out—in New York in 2020, but a fierce backlash prompted the NYPD to return the device, which it had christened Digidog. In December, a San Francisco uproar ended with the Board of Supervisors voting to prohibit police from allowing any kind of robot to kill crime suspects.

Dig through Spot’s specs and the dollar signs soar—one of the robo-pooch’s legs costs $64,000. Something called the FLYMOTION Ridgeback Starter System w/Starter Kit runs $37,979. And as Spot is apparently unavailable via Amazon Prime, ground shipping will run $3,200.

Spot may be new tech, but the discussion around where and how it will be utilized rekindled an old but ongoing dispute, with folks basically split depending on whether they already support or distrust the LAPD. It’s a matter that is only becoming more barbed, as the November elections brought victories for a pair of left-leaning City Council candidates who seem to oppose not only expanding the LAPD but the department itself.

The meeting’s public comment period brought dozens of members of the public calling in to urge the committee to reject the donation. Expletives flew, but not as many as were heard in recent Council meetings. There was a similarity to the verbiage, with multiple earnest callers decrying how Spot exemplifies the “militarization” of the LAPD, and asserting that it is a “surveillance” tool that will be used to unfairly target “Black and brown” communities. Hamid Kahn of the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition cast Spot in the line of police drones, license plate readers and facial recognition software.

“Here now we’re gonna give them more tools, which is the equivalent of an occupying army,” Kahn charged.

He didn’t bring up the killer robot dog in the post-apocalyptic, 2017 Black Mirror episode “Metalhead,” but someone else there did. The eight-legged mechanical hound from Ray Bradbury’s 1953 book Fahrenheit 451 was also referenced. No one mentioned “Benji.”

Kowalski was just as on-message in arguing why the LAPD needs Spot and said any use of the new tech will be limited to a strict set of circumstances—such as a barricaded suspect who could put an officer at risk—with even stricter oversight. Deployment would only be with a SWAT unit, he said, which you know would lead to a zillion “SWAT Spot” headlines.

For every assertion that the dog is dystopian, Kowalski maintained that it’s a 21st-century law-enforcement tool that will, er… be kept on a tight leash.

“Under no circumstances will Spot be equipped with any weapons systems, whether lethal or less lethal,” Kowalski stated. “It will also not be equipped with any type of facial recognition software, and it will not be used for surveillance purposes or assigned into random patrol duties in any neighborhood in the city of Los Angeles.”

Like so much these days, it all boils down to (s)he said-police said, and in our current fractured milieu, it seems that no one is coming to the other side, or is even willing to be persuaded.

That goes for the Council itself—and the lines were clearly drawn. On one side were Monica Rodriguez, the chair of the Public Safety Committee, as well as panel member Tim McOsker. They asked questions about permissible uses and how the LAPD’s drone policy—a tech precursor of the dog—has been administered.

On the other side was Hugo Soto-Martinez, the newly elected and fiercely progressive District 13 rep, whose campaign platform included a demand to “Stop LAPD Spying,” and who in a DSA-LA questionnaire wrote, “I believe in the eventual goal of abolishing the current system of policing” in favor of an effort focused on the “actual root causes” of crime. Soto-Martinez had not only made up his mind to reject Spot before the session, he told the world he would, tweeting, “I’ll be voting NO on Robot Dogs today.”

Soto-Martinez brushed every one of Kowalski’s assurances to the side, stating, “It’s very disturbing. It’s very dystopian. I just don’t understand why we continue to lead on the path of militarization.”

If there’s one takeaway from the meeting, it’s that the chasm between these two opinions of the city’s police force will only widen. Yet while skepticism and criticism of the department continue—including in the wake of three people killed during encounters with police in the first week of 2023— Soto-Martinez’s supporters just don’t have the votes.

After a two-hour meeting, the panel voted 4-1 to welcome Spot. A future vote before the full City Council is to come. So is the next stage in the battle.

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