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Should police departments be able to use robots?

The question of how police departments can best use robots to help in dangerous work, specifically deadly force, has sparked debate from the public.
Posted at 9:27 PM, Mar 14, 2023

Whether it's for construction work, sheep herding, fashion, food delivery or entertainment — get used to seeing more and more robots in everyday life.

Watching the cute machines run a 5K or do a flip is a lot of fun. But give them crucial functions, like use of force and policing, and you get a much more serious debate.

In December, a San Francisco proposal to allow police to use potentially lethal robots in emergency situations outraged civil rights advocates.

"Most people in San Francisco are strongly opposed to having robots that kill," said Dean Preston, a San Francisco supervisor.

"Just like every other tool that they've ever used, these tools and these weapons of war are primarily used against Black and Brown people," said Yoel Haile, a criminal justice program director at the American Civil Liberties Union.

Ultimately, the city voted against the proposal — for now.

The San Francisco police chief told Scripps News that fears of robots are a "distraction from the real issue, which is having the tools necessary to prevent loss of innocent lives in an active shooter or mass casualty incident."

For years, police worldwide have been using robots for bomb disposal and other high-risk situations.

"That robot can see, can hear; we can communicate" said Carmine Marceno, a sheriff in Lee County, Florida. "So, you don't just send somebody into that building, and then there's a deadly confrontation."

In 2016, Dallas police became the first to kill a suspect with a robot during a standoff with a sniper who had killed five officers. The chief of police at the time, David Brown, was widely praised.

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"It was just a general recognition of how difficult that encounter was, how dangerous it was for the officers," said Michael White, a professor of criminology at Arizona State University.

But today, new robots are much more advanced.

"They're much more autonomous in terms of how they move about the world than robots with wheels that you steer," said Kristian Hammond, a professor of computer science at Northwestern University.

And new concerns are emerging. 

"Having a robot dog, just having it around, is traumatic, is intimidating," said Eunisses Hernandez, a councilmember in Los Angeles.

Last week, Los Angeles delayed a contentious vote on whether to accept as a gift to its police force: a dog-like robot nicknamed Spot.

The device has been in the spotlight before. 

In 2021, the New York Police Department was forced to take it off the street sooner than planned after critics complained it was creepy and deployed mostly in poorer neighborhoods.

Boston Dynamics, which creates the canine robots, tells Scripps News that any attempted weaponization of its robots is strictly prohibited. The company points out that Spot has already helped police save lives, including a 3-year-old who was held hostage in St. Petersburg, Florida.

For computer science and policing experts, it all comes down to trust, transparency and training.

"The absolute key then for the department is to articulate in their policy and in their training the very specific and narrow circumstances upon which this robot will be deployed," White said.

"We want to always make sure that we understand what the harms could be, and we take all of the actions we need to take to ensure that we don't use them in a way that pushes our communities away from us," Hammond said.

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