Rise of the robocops: Why more police forces are using robots to fight crime
Early this year, police in Novato, Calif. quelled a nearly explosive standoff by meeting the perpetrator’s one, outrageous demand: He wanted a cigarette.
After dousing the floor of a gas station with gasoline in response to a payment issue, the man had unsuccessfully attempted to torch the place before speeding off in his truck to a nearby Safeway convenience store. Once there, his nerves presumably on end, he demanded a smoke. And so the police obliged. Kind of.
Instead of bringing him a cigarette, which they feared the suspect might use to ignite more fuel, they brought him an electric vape pen. And instead of sending an officer to deliver it, they sent a robot — which also toted along a cell phone for negotiation purposes. Eventually, the perpetrator was arrested and charged with attempted arson and vandalism.
That’s just one of countless stories involving law enforcement robots, which have grown increasingly popular over the last several years. From handing out speeding tickets and patrolling streets to taking down armed suspects and diffusing bombs, they’ve become an effective crime-fighting tool that can save both labor and lives.
How Law Enforcement Robots Can Save Lives
“If an officer goes into a room and there’s an armed adversary, he has no choice except to shoot,” Sean Bielat, CEO of Endeavor Robotics, told Business Insider. “By adding time and space between the operator, you’ve introduced an element that can potentially reduce casualties.”
In 2013, a robot helped police catch the Boston Marathon bombers. A few years later, after a man murdered five Dallas police officers and threatened to shoot more in a parking garage standoff, police decided to avoid further casualties and send in a pound of C4 plastic explosive. Delivered by an 800-pound robot from Northrop Grumman, the material detonated and killed the suspect.
“Other options would have exposed our officers to grave danger,” Dallas police chief David Brown said at a press conference at the time.
How Police Robots Join the Force
In Chicago, robots have for years aided the efforts of Cook County Sheriff's Office deputies. Depending on the scenario, they reportedly can disable or kill suspects with non-lethal and lethal weapons such as bean bags, Tasers and a 12-gauge shotgun. A spokeswoman confirmed to Built In that they remain in use.
Many of these police robots are acquired from the companies that make them. Local police departments get others from the U.S. military courtesy of a Pentagon program called 1033. Consequently, ethical concerns about, which we'll address below.
Whether they’ll improve or impede the policing process if deployed on a large scale remains to be seen. But considering that hundreds of police departments across the U.S. and around the world have robots in their arsenals, these high-tech helpers are seemingly here to stay.
Check out some companies that make a variety of robots for police and other law enforcement personnel.
Northrop Grumman Remotec
Location: Falls Church, VA
What it does: Northrop Grumman Remotec’s Andros series of camera-equipped robots are designed for an array of public safety purposes. The various models can maneuver in tight spaces, climb stairs, lift objects, speed across rough terrain and even use weapons.
Location: Edina, MN
What it does: Recon’s ThrowBot 2 Robot is designed to do just what its name suggests: be thrown. Not only that, it’s supposedly capable of being dropped repeatedly onto concrete from up to 30 feet, can capture and transmit audio and video in real time, crawl over different types of terrain, clear obstacles and lug payloads of up to four pounds.
Location: Chelmsford, MA
What it does: Endeavor’s series of products for police and military use includes the throwable and expandable FirstLook. It can be used for exploring and observing danger zones; the portable and night-vision-equipped SUGV that can carry a human, climb stairs and manipulate objects for mobile operations; the Packbot for bomb disposal and surveillance as well as hazardous materials handling; and the mobile Kobra that carries up to 330 pounds and extends to heights of up to 11 feet.
Location: Mountain View, Calif.
What it does: Knightscope’s series of stationary and roving sentinel robots monitor entrances and exits of buildings and venues. They can understand human language in a variety of environments, self-charge, run around the clock and work in large areas that include corporate campuses and hospitals. The company’s newest model, K7, is still in development and will reportedly be suitable for campuses, power utility substations and solar and wind farms.
Location: Sausalito, Calif.
What it does: SMP makes security robots (known as it’s S5 series) that are equipped with high-definition cameras, long-range loudspeakers, autonomous vehicle control systems and AI-powered thermal and panoramic surveillance capabilities. Images are transmitted via 4G or WiFi.
Location: San Mateo, Calif.
What it does: Cobalt’s robots are autonomous patrol vehicles that can detect possible risks (human or otherwise), clear false alarms and alert response specialists to potential dangers. They even transmit data-rich status and incident reports on a regular basis.
Location: Fuquay-Varina, N.C.
What it does: SuperDroid’s products include robots for tactical and surveillance applications. Law enforcement-friendly functions include remote surveillance, stair climbing capabilities, night vision, underwater maneuvering, security and patrolling, bomb detection and more.
Ethics of Using Robots in Law Enforcement
Some say that in addition to supplementing workforces — for example, by taking over the inherently risky task of issuing speeding tickets and other traffic stop duties — robots can keep officers safe and eliminate bias in policing.
“You will have fewer pre-textual stops,” one supporter told the Washington Examiner. “Once expectations are adjusted, you will have fewer issues with cops pulling over a car because they don't look like they fit [in a neighborhood] or tailing a car for miles waiting for them to do something nominally wrong.”
Another proponent told the publication that robotic policing “actually seems like an improvement on traffic cameras in one respect, assuming they can make it practical in the field, in that the patent has a mechanism for scanning a driver’s license. Traffic cameras typically have to assume that the driver of the car — and thus the person liable for fines or penalties detected by the camera — is always the registered owner.”
Reuben Brewer, a senior robotics researcher at SRI International, invented a robot that allows cops to make roadside stops without exiting their squad cars.
“The main advantage of a robot over a human is that physical danger no longer matters," he recently told the Washington Post. “The robot is purely defensive, so it can’t hurt the motorist. If the motorist damages the robot, it’s only money to replace it.”
Brewer also noted that “People are more dangerous when they're scared, so the goal is to remove the possibility of being physically hurt so that they're less scared and less dangerous.”
Even so, others fear that robots might do more harm than good. While they might not have an inherent racial bias, for instance, that doesn't mean the underlying AI technology is perfect. In fact, as MIT Media Lab researcher Joy Buolamwini found, it's not even adequate. People with dark skin are misidentified by facial analysis software far more often than their lighter-skinned counterparts. Some of these police robots employ that sort of technology.
"People of color are in fact the global majority," Buolamwini told Boston Magazine. "The majority of the world, who I like to call the under-sampled majority, aren’t being represented within the training data or the benchmark data used to validate artificial intelligence systems. We’re fooling ourselves about how much progress we’ve made."
She added that those who already are more likely to be targeted by police "are least represented [in face-recognition code]," which puts them "at higher risk of being misidentified as a criminal suspect. Because we live in a society that reflects historical biases that are continuing to this day, we have to confront the kind of data we’re generating, the kind of data we’re collecting, how we’re analyzing it. And we need to do it with diverse eyes in the room, diverse experiences, and more gender parity."
Using robots to deal with mentally ill suspects is a risky proposition, too, as evidenced by this tense scenario that played out in Bangor, Maine last year.
Then there's the possibility of excessive violence.
Speaking with Politico Magazine in 2016, Jay Stanley, a policy analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union, wondered if robots should be used by police only in "extraordinary circumstances" or if they should "start clamoring for robots specifically designed to use force.”
Absent the reasoning powers and visual acuity of human police officers, Stanley went on, robots might act too forcefully in situations that call for nuance and restraint.
“Let’s say there’s a protest, and there aren’t any police on the scene,” he said, “and a robot starts spraying pepper spray, or tear gas, or rubber bullets, on the crowd, and they do it with poor situational awareness and they hit people who are not involved, or they do it when it’s not necessary.”
This story, from The Ringer, echoed similar concerns in 2017.
"As law enforcement continues to stockpile and grow stashes of military-grade robots and weaponized drones," a portion of it reads, "the opportunities to use these tools are bound to increase."
As you can probably imagine, that not necessarily a good thing.
In a 2016 PBS Newshour interview following the robotic disarming of bombs in New York and New Jersey, author and New America senior strategist Peter W. Singer said the issue of robots in law enforcement “has to involve not just the police, but also the populace, the people that are to be protected and served by the police and the tools, including the robotic ones, that they use.”
Reached by email, Singer told Built In those comments still hold true today.
And in a lengthy analysis of police and military robots for the UCLA Law Review, U.C. Davis law professor Elizabeth E. Joh posed a variety of cautionary questions.
“Even if this use of robots is still just a concept, we can anticipate the kinds of legal and policy challenges that might arise,” she wrote. “First, how much should humans remain ‘in the loop’—maintain some degree of involvement, in other words—in the use of robot police? Second, how much coercive force should we permit police robots to exercise? Third, how might the use of police robots affect legal determinations like reasonable force? Fourth, will police robot use further reinforce the social inequities in policing? Finally, how can we develop a uniform approach to policing police robots?”
Writing on Vox.com not long after slaughter of police in Dallas, Singer and his colleague Emefa Addo Agawu argued that it’s less a question of “whether we want robotics involved across various areas of life" and more one of how.
“And where police and robots are concerned,” they added, “the debate cannot be separated from the heated discussions about what role we want police to play in society.”
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