April 19, 2021 by Ethics in Tech Board Member Brett Wilkins for Common Dreams

Rep. Jamaal Bowman on Friday added his voice to the growing public outrage—especially in over-policed communities of color—in response to the New York Police Department’s deployment of a robotic K-9 unit. 

Responding to the NYPD’s use of Boston Dynamics’ “Spot” robot—which the department calls “DigiDog”—Bowman (D-N.Y.) asked, “Why the hell do we need robot police dogs?” 

Bowman lamented that while there are “people living in poverty, struggling to put food on the table, keep a roof over their head, take care of their kids, afford child care—all this going on, and now we got damn robot police dogs walking down the street.”

“This is some RoboCop shit,” Bowman said, referring to the 1987 Paul Verhoeven-directed science fiction film about a cyborg cop in Detroit in 2043.

“This is crazy,” Bowman continued. “We need police reform. We need racial justice. We need economic justice.”

“Now not only do I feel physically occupied in my community by too many police, now y’all bringing robot police to occupy my community?” he said. “You can’t give me a living wage, you can’t raise the minimum wage, you can’t give me affordable housing?”

“Instead, we got money—taxpayer money—going toward robot police dogs,” Bowman added. “Taxpayers fund the police. Taxpayers need to stand up and say, ‘enough is enough,’ ’cause that’s crazy right there. That’s what you do when you got too much money. They got military gear, and now they got robot dogs in the streets further oppressing us… It’s crazy. We need to end that.”

Boston Dynamics advertises the 70-pound quadruped robot—which can run about three-and-a-half miles an hour and climb stairs—for $74,500, retail.

“Spot comes ready to operate, right out of the box,” the company’s website says. “With its flexible API [application programming interface] and payload interfaces, Spot can be customized for a variety of applications.”

The NYPD version of the robot is equipped with additional cameras and lights. In December, NYPD Technical Assistance Response Unit Inspector Frank Digiacomo told WABC that “this dog is going to save lives, protect people, and protect officers and that’s our goal,” and that it “is able to use its artificial intelligence to navigate things [in] very complex environments.”

Bowman isn’t the first member of Congress to condemn NYPD’s use of the robot. Common Dreams reported in February that Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) blasted the department for deploying DigiDog in a Bronx apartment building in her district. 

“Please ask yourself: when was the last time you saw next-generation, world class technology for education, healthcare, housing, etc. consistently prioritized for underserved communities like this?” she said. 

Civil liberties groups have also decried the use of DigiDiog, with the legal aid group Brooklyn Defenders calling it “the poster child for the NYPD’s voracious appetite for dystopian overreaching spy tech.”

“NYC should fund our communities, not the police surveillance state,” the group asserted. 

CBS New York reports New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio plans to speak with police officials about the robot’s use.

“If in any way it’s unsettling to people, we should rethink the equation,” he said. 

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