Bad Cop, No Robot
Like millions of people, I watched the viral video of dancing Boston Dynamics robots that made its way around Twitter this week. But unlike many of those millions, I did not think, “Wow, the future is so cool.” I thought, “We gotta keep these away from the cops.”
I admit that some of my aversion is a gut reaction to the uncanny valley. The dog-shaped ones creep me out the most. A predator, often headless, unfazed by rain or heat, without need for food or water or rest—that’s the stuff of science fiction nightmares. I know, objectively, these robots are an incredible technological achievement, yet I can’t erase that instinctive unease.
Still, my worry about misuse of these and similar robots by law enforcement is not merely an emotional reaction. Nor do I think there’s zero place for robots in policing. The problem I foresee is the introduction of robotics without a strong and specific legal framework dictating how they may and may not be used.
The risk here is escalation, and the history of SWAT teams provides an excellent case study. These units were introduced to American policing a little over half a century ago, designed for a limited set of very dangerous circumstances, chiefly hostage and barricade situations or violent rioting.
As time went on, however, police departments realized they could use SWAT teams in more routine contexts, too. Now, fewer than one in 10 SWAT raids involve those high-danger situations. “Today in America SWAT teams violently smash into private homes more than 100 times per day,” writes Reason alum Radley Balko in Rise of the Warrior Cop. “The vast majority of these raids are to enforce laws against consensual crimes,” he adds, particularly drug use. American SWAT teams have raided homes and businesses for alleged offenses including unlicensed barbering, copyright violation, and parodying a local politician on Twitter. Some police departments use SWAT teams to execute every search warrant.
There’s a difference, however, between how SWAT use started and how robotics is being introduced to policing. When SWAT teams were created, state lawmakers passed legislation giving police new leeway in their work and deadlier tools with which to do it. By contrast, the residents of New York City learned their police department had obtained a Boston Dynamics dog when it was photographed in action at a crime scene. The acquisition does not appear to have been directed by any elected officials, though it’s possible a law enforcement transparency measure passed by the city council this past summer will compel the NYPD to report on the robot’s current use and devise policies for it going forward. So far, the NYPD has characterized the dog exactly as SWAT teams were described in their early days: a tool to keep officers safe in unusual emergencies, especially hostage and barricade crises.
Likewise, when the Massachusetts State Police borrowed a Boston Dynamics robot for “mobile remote observation,” a records request by the state branch of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) turned up no departmental use policy. “We just really don’t know en
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