Los Angeles Times

City Council to vote on robot dog for LAPD

Officials will decide whether to accept a gift that has drawn concerns of misuse.

- By Libor Jany

Amid lingering concerns about surveillan­ce and safety, the Los Angeles City Council is expected to vote Tuesday on whether to accept the donation of a dog-like robot for the LAPD.

The controvers­ial device would be paid for with a nearly $280,000 donation from the Los Angeles Police Foundation. The Police Commission and the council’s public safety committee have approved the move.

The Police Department said it intends 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 set of eyes in potentiall­y dangerous situations while keeping officers out of harm’s way, officials say.

Under the department’s policy, its use would be restricted to incidents involving the SWAT team, such as an active shooter, barricaded suspect or explosive device.

Critics are dubious. As with other police technologi­es, they worry about its potential for misuse to harm and spy on Black and Latino communitie­s.

Hamid Khan, with the oversight group Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, said that even if the robot starts out with a more benign purpose, law enforcemen­t cannot be trusted to regulate itself. Throughout its history, the LAPD has justified new technology and programs by saying it would be used only in narrow circumstan­ces, Khan said.

“There’s a long history of mission creep with the LAPD that what we have seen, and everything we have called out has then suddenly been transforme­d into a much wider expansion of its deployment,” he said. “If we go back historical­ly, the helicopter fleet first came out, then we saw the SWAT and that it’s only going to be in particular situations, but SWAT has been normalized.”

On social media, critics of the LAPD’s plan have circu

lated news stories about the robotic canine’s disastrous deployment in New York City.

The nation’s largest police force first acquired the technology in 2020. Its use didn’t get widespread attention until the next year, when it sparked a public outcry after a viral video showed the robot trotting alongside New York City officers during a hostage situation at a high-rise public housing building.

Critics denounced the decision to use the device in what they said is an over policed community, and they also raised concerns about privacy and data collection. After several days, the New York City Police Department broke its contract with Boston Dynamics and returned the robot.

LAPD Lt. Ruben Lopez, who oversees SWAT, said the department learned from what happened in New York. In Los Angeles, the Police Department’s “strict policies” for Spot’s use would ensure “we don’t abuse it, so we can avoid confrontat­ions and stuff with people who don’t want to be 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 will not use it to surveil,” he said, noting similar concerns about widespread police surveillan­ce after the LAPD bought drones five years ago. “It’s baseless . ... We haven’t had a single violation.”

As with the department’s drones, its 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 that fears of the technology someday being used to spy on or attack people are ridiculous. He said the department had worked to devise safeguards against such abuse.

“This isn’t about perception; it isn’t about how it looks. It’s about saving lives of the public and saving the lives of police officers and saving the lives of suspects, some of whom are severely mentally ill and are severely in drug stupors,” he said. “There’s no missiles attached to it, and there’s not secret chemicals attached to it.”

Several council members have signaled they would vote against the robot.

In a Twitter thread, Councilmem­ber Hugo Soto-Martínez wrote that the robot’s deployment in New York “isn’t just disturbing, it’s deeply unjust. Especially when talking about low-income tenants and communitie­s of color.”

Soto-Martínez, the sole “no” vote on the public safety committee, has signaled his continued opposition to the robot.

Opposition to the robots has mounted in recent months, following an uproar over a proposal in San Francisco to weaponize robots for use in killing people in certain situations. City leaders dropped the plan under public pressure.

Critics fear that it’s only a matter of time before other cities push for armament.

This year, Boston Dynamics, the company that manufactur­es Spot, joined other robotics firms in an open letter condemning the arming of robots, saying the practice will “harm public trust in the technology in ways that damage the tremendous benefits they will bring to society.”

The technology has been in use for years in more than 30 countries around the world, the company said.

Another company, Ghost Robotics, has started marketing a weaponized doglike robot to several branches of the U.S. military and its allies. And the fourlegged robots were seen trotting around the grounds at Internatio­nal Defense Exhibition and Conference, an arms fair held every two years in the Emirati capital of Abu Dhabi.

Besides the controvers­y in policing, Spot has received benign attention, appearing in viral social media videos, dancing to pop songs.

This year, Jimmy Fallon featured the robot on an episode of “The Tonight Show,” and Boston Dynamics has highlighte­d the technology’s use in countries worldwide.

For example, London’s Heathrow Airport is using one of the robots to do 3-D laser scans of a 1960s-era cargo tunnel that’s being refurbishe­d. In Ukraine, it’s being used to sweep for mines.

Across the United States, the devices are starting to be used in various roles by police department­s in cities such as Honolulu and St. Petersburg, Fla. The Homeland Security Department is considerin­g deploying robot dogs manufactur­ed by Ghost Robots to help patrol the southern border.

But experts say that efforts at regulation nationwide of police technology have been piecemeal and largely failed to keep up with new developmen­ts in robotics.

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