Robot Police Dogs and ‘Fascism For Liberals’

In case you missed it, the NYPD took a robot dog out for a walk in the Wakefield section of the Bronx last month. The machine was reportedly on the hunt for two people at an alleged home invasion. Two weeks ago, another canine cop was deployed for an alleged domestic dispute in a Manhattan public housing development involving an emotionally disturbed man. However, last week, the NYPD pulled the plug on what apparently was a real world police experiment, announcing the termination of the robot’s leash, err, lease.

NYPD deputy commissioner for intelligence and counterterrorism John Miller – a journalist turned cop turned journalist turned cop – said that the department had been trying out the device until August but cut the contract short, complaining that the robot had gotten a bad wrap. “People had figured out the catchphrases and the language to somehow make this evil,” Miller told the New York Times.

Somehow.

The metallic dog walks had amounted to viral moments for New Yorkers who didn’t know the department even had a robot dog. However, the machine was just one of the latest high-tech acquisitions for America’s largest police force which has added to its arsenal amid a national outcry against policing.

The dubiously useful robot dog (whose name doesn’t matter because it’s not a real dog, it’s a machine) was made and sold to the police department by Boston Dynamics, a company that functions “more like a well-funded research lab” for the Pentagon. This “lab” has received more than $150 million from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a part of the US Defense Department, since 1994. Their robot dog has been used in Singapore to police social distancing and is being tested by the French army in combat exercises. 

The “Digidog” robot, whose debut may have been last October when cops reportedly deployed it in an attempt to settle a parking dispute, and was leased by the department for $94,000, was the latest in a line of gadgets for the NYPD, which continues to be the most expensive police department in human history. Previously, the department announced its fleet of drones in December of 2018 – at least seven months after the flying robots had already been purchased. Activists and state lawmakers, meanwhile, have proposed legislation to effectively ban their use.

While the novelty of a bot dog elicited embarrassing copaganda coverage from the broadcast press, like ABC 7’s police statement-filled story about “a new dog in town” and Anderson Cooper’s recent fawning profile of Boston Dynamics (“If Willy Wonka made robots, it might look something like this,” says Cooper), the unnerving fact is that the NYPD’s surveillance capabilities have swelled under Mayor Bill de Blasio. In addition to drones, the police department now boasts facial recognition, military-grade cell phone tracking technology, DNA and gang databases, licence plate readers, and shadowy so-called ‘predictive’ policing technologies.

Kipp, a resident of the nearby Kingsbridge neighborhood in the Bronx and a member of VOCAL-NY and its GROW program, wasn’t pleased about the robot dog’s debut. “Using a robot dog? To do what?” The prospect of NYPD’s escalating technology has her “terrified,” she said, especially because “we know there’s no police accountability.” She is also concerned about how police robots work against “what we’re doing in terms of democracy.” The Bronx resident called it “a dangerous precedent” and an “overreach of power.”

Almost 34 years ago, the epic Paul Verhoeven film, Robocop, fascinated the public imagination. Set some time in the first half of the 21st century, the dystopian blockbuster critically depicted the merging of technology, police, capitalism, gentrification and corruption. In the movie, as the police turn to a powerful corporation, Omnicorp, to provide it with manpower – first in the form of the ED-209 gunner robot that kills an Omnicorp executive, and then in the human-ish Robocop – Detroit becomes a warzone. 

What one of the film’s producers described as “fascism for liberals,” Robocop seemed a cautionary tale about technology, violence and power. The movie’s producers expected the public to be outraged by what the movie proposed. And yet as Salon writer John Semley describes, the fim “offers visions of violence, of top-down, totalitarian corporate control, and the crumbling of the American Dream itself that proves fundamentally comforting in its cheekiness and ironic distance. Yes, the world it depicts is bad. But we know it’s bad. And that’s good.” Decades later, however, cities like New York seem to have missed the point.

There are, of course, key differences from the movie’s Robocop and New York City’s so-called robo-dog. First, in the movie Detroit is going bankrupt, its police force goes on strike, and it  outsources policing to Omni’s creations. In NYC, despite some COVID-related economic woes, the city isn’t anywhere close to being broke and in fact has largely spared the police budget from any meaningful budget cuts even after massive protests have called for police budget defunding. Also, the NYPD isn’t at the mercy of some domineering outside power – they’re the domineering power unto themselves.

Robocop at least had a plausible explanation for why a desperate Detroit would turn to gadgetry and tech. Why then did officials in non-fictional New York City allow police to dabble in robot dogs? The short answer is because they can. There are essentially no limits to what technology the NYPD can acquire; the department claims to have operated robots since the 1970s. 

Members of the City Council, who oversee the city budget that funds the department and therefore ostensibly paid the bill for the robot, moved to subpoena for the price of the machine – months after the devices were obtained and only after considerable public outrage. And despite surveillance reporting requirements passed by the City Council in 2019 that police regularly update the public about their technological arsenal, the NYPD is not meeting disclosure requirements, in blatant violation of the law. 

It seems like the only responsibility the police believe they have to the public about its weaponry is to belatedly release inaccurate, outdated, or even straight up wrong information.

At a time of heightened awareness of police abuse, the ease at which cops can empower themselves (and in Democrat-controlled cities like NYC) is rather astonishing. And while the Mayor has routinely defended the police department and overseen six straight budget increases for it, other elected officials have offered little more than rhetorical or symbolic gestures. 

The City Council, overwhelmingly Democratic and with many self-identified ‘progressives,’ took years to even pass the POST Act, which requires some reporting but doesn’t limit the NYPD from their publicly-financed shopping sprees. Other Councilmembers (who control the budget which pays for NYPD tech)  have talked for years about replacing police officers with mental health responders in interactions with emotionally-disturbed people, but in reality it was the NYPD and their robot dog who responded to the call with the emotionally-disturbed in Manhattan earlier this month.

And while this ask-and-you-shall-receive relationship between the NYPD and elected officials might be seen as problematic, if not dangerous, there also remains questions as to why or if robot dogs are even needed.

Police have long used bomb-sniffing (real) dogs and remote controlled machines to deal with bomb threats. Is a robot dog a public necessity or a frivolous use of taxpayer dollars, especially at a time when the city is in a financial crunch? You could ask the same question of drones or really any other surveillance tool the NYPD has today. Cops, for their part, seem to only need to assert that their toys are needed for public safety. And if the taxpayer doesn’t pay for it, they have a private piggy bank, too.

But the question of public safety is rooted in who gets to define it. In Robocop, public safety became Omnicorp’s domain – a public good to be filled by the corporation’s evolving robots and wildest dreams. In New York, the call for public safety, which activists are asking us to reframe as something tied to basic needs such as shelter and access to healthcare, is filled by the NYPD’s growing list of sci-fi weapons and robots.  

When asked what the Bronx community, which wasn’t consulted or told about the purchasing nor use of a robot dog in its neighborhood, might think about the canine cop, Kipp pointed to “inordinate amounts” of police department spending while they escape accountability.” A better use of resources for her community, she said, would be for things like afterschool programs and youth sports. 

“[NYPD] are getting incredible amounts of money that they use us on robot dogs, which they deploy – a military term.” For Kipp, the robot dog seems to send an implicit message from authorities: “we’re gonna treat you like dogs.”

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