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Flush with CARES Act cash, the Honolulu Police Department has spent millions on what one officer called “toys.”
The Honolulu Police Department used $150,045 in federal funds intended to respond to the pandemic to acquire a robot dog named Spot, according to city spending data.
Built by the engineering and robotics company Boston Dynamics, the four-legged device can walk on various terrain, open doors, record video and even dance – as it did it in a viral music video released by the company last month.
As for its use helping Honolulu combat COVID-19, the city’s spending data says Spot was purchased to take people’s temperatures at HPD’s tent city for homeless people.
In other words, its ostensible use is as a thermometer, according to the city’s spending justification, though HPD says it can do more.
“It sounds absolutely ridiculous,” said Katrina Langford, a Haleiwa mother of two who has struggled to get rental assistance after she and her husband lost their jobs.
“I could think of a lot of better things to do with that money. It seems like people are taking temperatures everywhere and they don’t need robots to do it.”
Spot retails for $74,500, but Boston Dynamics offers add-ons that could jack up the price by tens of thousands.
HPD rejected a Civil Beat request to interview a department official about the purchase. Instead, Deputy Chief John McCarthy issued an emailed statement saying that the robot is “more than a ‘thermometer.’”
“Spot will help to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 through touchless field screening and interaction with homeless individuals in self-quarantine,” he said.
“Oftentimes, POST participants will request medical attention when exhibiting possible symptoms of COVID-19. In an effort to reduce possible exposure, the Spot robot will provide telemedicine to those individuals and can deliver medical supplies and food.”
Spot can also patrol an area and conduct continual thermal imaging to detect people’s temperature changes, according to McCarthy.
“Currently, much of this work is done by officers, some of whom are on overtime pay. In the long run, the Spot robot will save money while keeping officers safe,” he said. “Beyond the pandemic, we plan to use the Spot robot in other HPD operations.”
Federal Funds Used For Robot, Drone, ATVs
The robot dog was paid for by HPD’s share of federal CARES Act dollars – approximately $40 million that former Mayor Kirk Caldwell allocated to the department, according to the city’s data.
The CARES Act requires that all purchases made with its funding are “necessary expenditures incurred due to the public health emergency,” according to the U.S. Treasury.
Spot is just one of several big-ticket expenses HPD has covered with its CARES dollars.
Approximately $18.5 million dollars in overtime, which officers were found to be using excessively
$4.1 million on vehicles, including Chevrolet Colorado pickup trucks, Mitsubishi FUSO box trucks, and Nissan NV3500 vans
$28,709 to redesign the HPD website
$27,614 on a drone and related accessories
Over $500,000 on ATVs, plus $7,290 more for ATV helmets; over $32,000 for cargo boxes to attach to the ATVs; nearly $85,000 to outfit the vehicles with blue lights, sirens and microphone functions; and $15,600 on utility terrain vehicle training.
The spending has drawn criticism from community members, leaders like Council Chair Tommy Waters, and even police officers themselves.
“Toys, toys, toys,” said one Honolulu officer who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of fear of retaliation. “Everything we could buy we would buy.”
HPD’s CARES allotment exceeded the city’s $25 million Household Relief Fund, which aimed to bail out individuals and families in need to help with rent, utilities and child care payments.
“The bulk of the money should’ve gone to individuals and families who were suffering,” said Councilwoman Heidi Tsuneyoshi.
The council’s public safety committee, which Tsuneyoshi now chairs, will discuss the purchase of the robot dog at a meeting at 2:30 p.m. on Wednesday.
Honolulu Police Chief Susan Ballard told members of the Honolulu Police Commission on Sept. 16 that CARES spending by HPD is vetted by the city’s Department of Budget and Fiscal Services and the Corporation Counsel’s office.
“This is not money they gave to us and said you can spend it … any way you want,” Ballard said. “There are very strict processes that we have to follow to spend the money and get it approved … There have been times when it has been denied and that project is just off the table.”
Brandi Higa, a spokeswoman for the mayor, declined to comment on whether the Corporation Counsel’s office felt the robot met federal requirements, citing attorney-client privilege between city lawyers and HPD.
Civil Beat asked the city what Mayor Rick Blangiardi’s stance is on the purchase of the robot dog. He declined to comment.
Robot Dogs Marketed To Police Departments
According to Boston Dynamics, Spot is a “stable, dynamically balanced quadruped robot” that can do what other robots and drones cannot, like climb stairs, work around obstructions and operate in “constrained environments.” The quadrupedal robots move like animals and can even pick themselves back up if they’re knocked over.
Boston Dynamics markets Spot as a useful tool in various sectors including construction, utilities, and oil and gas plants. It was used earlier this year at a construction site at Honolulu’s Queen Emma Building, Hawaii News Now reported.
The company also touts its potential public safety uses including “remotely to get eyes on dangerous situations or inspect hazardous packages from afar,” according to its website.
The Massachusetts State Police was the first law enforcement agency in the country to test out the robot dog in 2019, according to WBUR. Boston Dynamics loaned the device to the state’s bomb squad.
Since that first trial, the New York City Police Department has also brought its own Boston Dynamics “Digidog” onto the force, according to an ABC affiliate in New York.
The U.S. military is using similar technology from a company called Ghost Dynamics to enhance security and replace traditional security cameras on military bases, the Washington Post reported.
“We can see them in war zones, working with bombs, scouting, targeting, probably in 2022,” Jiren Parikh, Ghost Robotics’ chief executive, told The Post. “These can really become a warfighter’s best friend.”
At least one other government entity has acquired a robot dog for pandemic purposes: Singapore. Boston Dynamics’ Spot was deployed in a Singapore park to remind people to socially distance, Reuters reported.
A voice told passersby: “Let’s keep Singapore healthy. For your own safety and for those around you, please stand at least one meter apart. Thank you.”
Local police used $150,000 in COVID relief funds to purchase Boston Dynamics' four-legged robot, Spot.
Despite widespread public outrage at police departments’ use of Boston Dynamics' Spot robot, law enforcement agencies continue to look for ways to experiment with the headless, quadrupedal machine.
One of the more creative examples comes from Honolulu, where police spent more than $150,000 in COVID-19 relief funding to purchase a Spot robot to take body temperatures, disinfect, and patrol the city’s homeless quarantine encampment.
Honolulu is one of four police departments to purchase or lease a Spot robot—the Massachusetts State Police, New York City Police Department (which recently returned the robots), and the Dutch National Police, which purchased one of the machines in April.
The purchase of the robot by the Honolulu Police Department (HPD), first reported by Honolulu Civil Beat, was one of several expensive purchases the department made for the encampment that angered Honolulu residents who felt the money could be better spent elsewhere.
During a January city council meeting, HPD officials attempted to “vindicate ourselves for some of the bad press.” They claimed that Spot would actually save the department money because it would reduce the need for more manpower and equipment, and that the robot allowed the department to keep operating a successful street-to-shelter program despite the pandemic.
Lt. Mike Lambert added that because the robot’s thermal cameras can detect body temperature from eight feet away, and it can move over rugged terrain, Spot would reduce the risk of officer exposure to COVID-19.
“To put a price tag on a possible exposure to the officers and their families—$150,000 I wouldn’t put that price on anybody, not one of the homeless people, one of the social workers, or one of the officers,” he told the council.
In an emailed statement, Boston Dynamics told Motherboard that it approves of HPD’s use of its robot in these instances. “Spot is not designed or intended to replace a police officer or social worker but rather to augment the work of public safety officials and police departments to reduce risks and increase safety for all people,” a Boston Dynamics spokesperson wrote. “Spot was under the control of a human operator and used to remove humans from potentially hazardous environments [in Honolulu].”
One of the main justifications Lambert and other HPD officials made for the purchase was that the robot could be used for an apparently unlimited number of tasks after the pandemic. Lambert’s slide presentation to the council also suggested using the robot for “remote encampment outreach” and “de-escalation.” He did not provide any explanation of how the robot would perform those tasks.
“The ideas you can come up with would be endless as far as its future potential use beyond the pandemic,” Lambert said. He suggested using the robot to enforce social distancing on city streets and conduct search-and-rescue operations.
The only question the city council asked of HPD was whether the robot could be used to crack down on Honolulu’s fireworks problem.
“I would not think it beyond reason—you could send this technology into a neighborhood to either give you a visual perspective of what’s occurring in a neighborhood to detect explosions in the air,” Lambert said. “That’s not beyond reason. Or capture people lighting them, capture people actually lighting the fireworks.”
Concerns about the use of a semi-autonomous robot to surveil communities prompted the New York City Police Department to end its use of Spot robots.
Honolulu police did not respond to requests for comment. Motherboard has submitted a public records request for documentation of the HPD’s use of the robot since January.
Homeless residents of a state-run tent city in Honolulu, Hawaii, are having their eyes scanned by a robotic police dog.
Police in the city say it's a safer way to check for symptoms of COVID-19.
But local civil rights advocates say the use of the robot – called Spot – dehumanises some of Honolulu's most vulnerable residents.
"Because these people are houseless it’s considered OK to do that,” said Jongwook Kim, legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii. “At some point it will come out again for some different use after the pandemic is over".
Acting Lt. Joseph O’Neal of the Honolulu Police Department’s community outreach unit defended the robot’s use in a media demonstration earlier this year.
He said it had protected officers, shelter staff and residents by scanning people’s body temperatures at a shelter where they could quarantine and get tested for COVID-19.
The robot is also used to remotely interview individuals who have tested positive for the virus.
"We have not had a single person out there that said, ‘That’s scary, that’s worrisome,’" O’Neal said. "We don’t just walk around and arbitrarily scan people".
Police use of such robots is still rare and largely untested — and hasn’t always gone over well with the public.
Honolulu officials faced a backlash when a local news organisation, Honolulu Civil Beat, revealed that the Spot purchase was made with federal relief money.
Public outcry in New York
Late last year, the New York Police Department started using Spot after painting it blue and renaming it "Digidog". It went mostly unnoticed until New Yorkers began spotting it in the wild and posting videos to social media.
Shortly afterwards, the department returned the robot to its manufacturer.
"This is some Robocop stuff, this is crazy," was the reaction in April from Democratic congressman Jamaal Bowman.
He was one of several New York politicians to speak out after a widely shared video showed the robot strutting with police officers responding to a domestic-violence report at a high-rise public housing building in Manhattan.
Days later, after further scrutiny from elected city officials, the department said it was terminating its lease and returning the robot.
The expensive machine arrived with little public notice or explanation, public officials said, and was deployed to already over-policed public housing. Use of the high-tech canine also clashed with Black Lives Matter calls to defund police operations and reinvest in other priorities.
In the aftermath of the fiasco, Boston Dynamics, the company that makes the robots, Boston Dynamics, said it needed to do a better job of explaining the technology to the public and customers who have had little experience with it.
'Just a tool'
For the Dutch national police, one of the company’s customers, explaining the technology includes emphasising that Spot is a very good robot — well-behaved and not so smart after all.
"It doesn’t think for itself," Marjolein Smit, director of the special operations unit of the Dutch national police, said of the remote-controlled robot. "If you tell it to go to the left, it will go to the left. If you tell it to stop, it will stop".
Earlier this year, her police division sent its robot into the site of a deadly drug lab explosion near the Belgian border to check for dangerous chemicals and other hazards.
According to Boston Dynamics, its acceptable use guidelines prohibit Spot’s weaponisation or anything that would violate privacy or civil rights laws, which it said puts the Honolulu police in the clear ethically.
It's all part of a year-long effort by the company, which in the past relied on military funding, to make its robots seem friendlier and thus more palatable to local governments and consumer-oriented businesses.
By contrast, a lesser-known rival, Philadelphia-based Ghost Robotics, has no qualms about weaponisation and supplies its dog-like robots to several branches of the US military and its allies.
"It’s just plug and play, anything you want," said Ghost Robotics CEO Jiren Parikh, who was critical of Boston Dynamics’ stated ethical principles as "selective morality" because of the company’s past involvement with the military.
Parikh added that his company doesn’t market its four-legged robots to police departments, though he said it would make sense for police to use them.
"It’s basically a camera on a mobile device," he said.
There are roughly 500 Spot robots now in the wild. Perry said they're commonly used by utility companies to inspect high-voltage zones and other hazardous areas. Spot is also used to monitor construction sites, mines and factories, equipped with whatever sensor is needed for the job.
It’s still mostly controlled by humans, though all they have to do is tell it which direction to go and it can intuitively climb stairs or cross over rough terrain. It can also operate autonomously, but only if it’s already memorised an assigned route and there aren’t too many surprise obstacles.
Should the police have robots?
"The first value that most people see in the robot is taking a person out of a hazardous situation," Michael Perry, vice president of business development at Boston Dynamics, said.
Kim, of the ACLU in Hawaii, acknowledged that there might be many legitimate uses for such machines, but said opening the door for police robots that interact with people is probably not a good idea.
He pointed to how Dallas police in 2016 stuck explosives on a wheeled robot to kill a sniper, fueling an ongoing debate about "killer robots" in policing and warfare.
"There’s the potential for these robots to increase the militarization of police departments and use it in ways that are unacceptable," Kim said.
"Maybe it’s not something we even want to let law enforcement have".
Honolulu PD’s $150,000 Boston Dynamics robot dog is doing the hard work of taking temperatures at one of Hawaii’s several outdoor homeless shelters.
Despite pushback from the community, cops in Honolulu are using a $150,000 robot dog to take the temperatures of homeless people. According to a training document and deployment log obtained via a records request, Boston Dynamics’ dog-like Spot robot has largely been doing what HPD promised it would—the noble work of an $11 thermometer.
Honolulu’s police department first drew national media attention when Civil Beat reported it had spent $150,045 in federal funds earmarked for pandemic relief on Spot. At a presentation to city council last year, Honolulu PD explained that Spot would be used to patrol the Keehi Lagoon Beach Park homeless encampment in the city and, more specifically, would be used to take the temperatures of unhoused people living in encampments as an initial COVID-19 screening.This means that people living in the encampment would have regular initial screenings not with a human but with a dog-shaped robot under the guise of keeping cops safe from homeless people who potentially had COVID-19.
“As far as law enforcement goes, I would be so bold to say it’s the most innovative program in the nation,” officer Mike Lambert of the Honolulu PD said during the city council meeting. “And during the pandemic, no one has ever heard of another law enforcement agency trying to provide shelter and overnight services for the unsheltered.”
In the months since that initial city council meeting, Spot usage logs obtained by Motherboard using a public records request shows that Spot is indeed regularly being deployed on “temperature” duty and is also often being used on something noted as “dinner” duty. Honolulu PD did not respond to a request for comment.
According to Lambert’s presentation, the $150,000 robot could potentially save the police department thousands of dollars a day. His 90-day estimate of cost savings put the number somewhere between $117,000 and $242,760. He based this number, seemingly, on what he would have to pay an officer to take the temperatures and also built in an estimate of what he’d have to pay an officer to quarantine for 14 days should they be exposed to COVID while taking temperatures.
According to activity logs from September, October, and November of 2021, Spot occasionally lost signal and couldn’t be deployed. Some days it wouldn’t deploy with only the word “weather” written in the notes column (Motherboard checked the weather in Honolulu on these days and it was raining, though it rains in Honolulu most days.)
“Regarding the question about rain, SPOT has an IP54 rating for water ingress,” a Boston Dynamics spokesperson told Motherboard. The second number in the IP rating is its resistance to water on a 1 to 9 scale. Spot would probably be fine in a light drizzle but struggle with heavy rain.
This program, notably, is about taking services that were previously administered to vulnerable populations by humans and replacing that human interaction with interaction with a robot dog that has also been studied for use by militaries.
It also raises the question: What will SPOT be doing if the pandemic winds down? Motherboard asked for clarification and training documents related to SPOT in July of 2021. Training documentation drafted by HPD in September 2021, a full two months after Motherboard asked if such documentation even existed, holds ambiguous clues to the robot dog’s future.
“Requests to use the SPOT robot for tactical operations is not [sic] be authorized, without appropriate direction from the element commander,” the documents said. “The SPOT robot is not to be weaponized or used to intimidate or harm any individuals.”
However, things could change. “In the future, at the completion of the pandemic and/or CARES Act guidelines, the SPOT robot may be utilized for other duties, as authorized by the element commander or designee,” the documents said. Historically, police will find a use for the technology they have, whether it’s necessary or not. We’ve seen this with tanks and other military surplus equipment that has trickled down to departments around the country. Don’t be surprised if we see it with Spot, too.