Americas

N.Y.P.D.’s Robot Dog Returns to Work, Touching Off a Backlash

A group of police officers marched out of a public housing building in Manhattan on Monday with a man who they said had a gun and had been hiding in an apartment with a woman and her baby.

But it was what came out of the building next that really grabbed attention while feeding into a far-reaching debate about policing in New York: a 70-pound robotic dog outfitted with lights, cameras and artificial intelligence.

The four-legged device had only gone into and out of the building’s lobby without playing an active role in the operation, the police said. Still, its mere presence at a public housing building ignited a fierce backlash, with many people condemning it as a stark example of police power and misplaced priorities even as calls to address both roil the United States.

“You can’t give me a living wage, you can’t raise a minimum wage, you can’t give me affordable housing; I’m working hard and I can’t get paid leave, I can’t get affordable child care,” Representative Jamaal Bowman, a first-term Democrat who represents parts of the Bronx and Westchester County, said in a video posted on Twitter. “Instead we got money, taxpayer money, going to robot dogs?”

Mayor Bill de Blasio said at a news conference on Wednesday that he had not seen the robot dog at work but shared “the concern that if in any way it’s unsettling to people we should rethink the equation.” He said he would discuss the matter with the police commissioner, Dermot F. Shea.

The introduction of the robotic dog comes as law enforcement agencies across the country face intense scrutiny over their policies and practices, especially with the murder trial of the former Minneapolis police officer charged with killing George Floyd underway.

Mr. Floyd’s death spurred calls in New York and elsewhere to “defund the police,” an expansive term that encompasses cutting law enforcement budgets and shifting the money to social programs.

In New York, the City Council passed a bill last summer that for the first time requires the Police Department to disclose information about its arsenal of surveillance tools, which is among the most sophisticated in America and includes license plate readers, cellphone trackers and drones.

With the mayor’s race heating up, criminal justice reform is a top issue for many voters. On Wednesday, one Democratic candidate, the former MSNBC analyst Maya Wiley, criticized the police’s use of the robot dog as wasteful and a threat to New Yorkers. (The device costs at least $74,000, according to a spokesman for Boston Dynamics, the company that makes it.)

“Rather than $70m invested into saving residents from dangerous mold & lead paint, N.Y.C. creates another danger for Black & Latino residents?!” Ms. Wiley wrote on Twitter. “Not when I’m Mayor!”

Scott M. Stringer, the city comptroller and another Democratic candidate for mayor, said that the Police Department should not be focused on “coming up with new and more sophisticated ways to harass the poor and people of color.”

“As mayor, we will invest in people, not police dogs,” he said.

Police departments’ use of robotic dogs, which resemble those featured in the 2017 “Metalhead” episode of the television show “Black Mirror,” has drawn frequent criticism since Boston Dynamics introduced the product in September 2019.

The American Civil Liberties Union has expressed concern that without proper regulation, the devices, which are remotely controlled and rely on artificial intelligence, could eventually become autonomous and make their own decisions that could reinforce police bias. The group has also raised privacy concerns and the specter of the devices eventually being used as weapons.

After the New York police deployed their dog during a hostage situation in the Bronx in February, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat who represents parts of the borough and Queens, likened the Digidog on Twitter to a “robotic surveillance ground” drone.

Michael Perry, a Boston Dynamics executive, said that out of the roughly 500 robotic dogs that are in the field worldwide, most are being used by utility companies, on construction sites or in other commercial settings that involve dangerous situations.

Mr. Perry said that only four of the devices were being used by police departments. In addition to New York, the others are the Massachusetts State Police, the Honolulu Police Department and a law enforcement agency in the Netherlands.

He said that the terms and conditions governing the device’s use prevent it from being deployed as a weapon.

“We are adamant that we do not want our robots to be used in a way that harms people,” he said.

In response to questions about the robotic dog, the Police Department on Wednesday referred to a February tweet that said New York officers had been using robots for 50 years in hostage situations and hazardous material settings where humans could be in danger.

Melanie Aucello, the president of the tenant association at the Kips Bay apartment building where the dog was on Monday, said she had been taking a day off from work when people started calling her about police activity in the building.

She came down to the lobby, where a large group of police officers and residents had gathered. The police, she was told, were trying to get the man out of the apartment, and had set up an inflatable cushion outside in case he jumped from a window.

Amid the chaos, the police brought the robotic dog into the building, a scene that Ms. Aucello captured on video.

“Everything got silent,” she said. “Everyone’s staring. I see this dog coming toward me, I’m like, ‘What the hell.’ So I just start filming. There’s just everyone staring. I just got chills down my body. I’m scared and nervous. I’m just filming and not believing what I’m seeing.”

She said the dog then “sat” in the lobby.

“Kids are going to the dog, like it’s cute,” she said. “I’m actually horrified they are letting this happen.”

Marie McKinstry, who also lives in the building and recorded a widely viewed video of the episode, said she was not scared of the dog.

“It reminds me of ‘Star Wars,’” she said. “You know, I was just like, ‘What does it do?’”

Seeing the robotic dog in the building reinforced Ms. Aucello’s feeling that people living in public housing were treated like second-class citizens.

“We’re powerless,” she said. “We’re like the scapegoats in society. To further read that they are trying it out and testing it out on us — everything that happens bad in our community happens here first.”

Daniel E. Slotnik contributed reporting.

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