A New York Lawmaker Wants to Ban Police Use of Armed Robots

Riley says he’s continuing to speak with residents, who want to feel safe in the neighborhood. “It’s our job as elected officials to educate residents and make sure they have a seat at the table” in discussions, he told WIRED.

The diversity of concerns mirror those in Dallas in 2016. During a standoff with a sniper, local law enforcement used a robot to remotely deliver and detonate an explosive device, killing him. The sniper had shot and killed five police officers.

The incident raised questions about how police acquire robots. Dallas police had at least three bomb robots in 2016. Two were acquired from the defense contractor Northrop Grumman, according to Reuters. The third came through the federal government’s 1033 program, which permits the transfer of surplus military equipment to local police departments. Since 1997, over 8,000 police departments have received over $7 billion in equipment.

A 2016 study from Bard University found that over 280 police agencies in the US had received robots through the 1033 system. One Colorado officer told local press his department acquired as many as a dozen military robots of varying condition, then uses the one that functions best.

President Obama placed limits on the types of equipment that police departments can obtain through the system, but President Trump later reversed them.

The lack of a unified federal response, the increasing number of private vendors furnishing robots, and increasing militarization of the police has made criminal justice and robotics experts wary. They don’t want to wait for a tragedy to consider a ban on weaponized robots.

“The goal for any kind of technology should be harm reduction and de-escalation,” says Peter Asaro, a roboticist and professor at the School of Media Studies at the New School.

“It’s almost always the police officer arguing that they’re defending themselves by using lethal force,” he says. “But a robot has no right to self-defense. So why would it be justified in using lethal force?”

Asaro notes that SWAT teams were created to handle bank robberies and armed riots. Now, they’re overwhelmingly used to serve narcotics warrants, as many as 60,000 times a year nationwide. The rare hostage situation solved by robot intervention, he worries, could justify increasing their use.

Shortly after the Dallas incident, police in Delaware acquired the same type of bomb robot and trained officers in a similar scenario. In 2018, police in Maine used a bomb robot to detonate an explosive and enter the home of a man firing at police from his roof.

“This is happening now,” says Melissa Hamilton, a scholar in Law and Criminal Justice at the University of Surrey in the UK and a former police officer. Hamilton says she’s heard of US police departments running drills similar to the 2016 incident in Dallas, using robots to detonate explosives—not just to neutralize suspects, but to enter buildings or end standoffs.

“I’m concerned that a democracy is turning domestic police into a militarized zone,” she says.

This increasing militarization is part of why Kallos, the New York councilmember, wants to “avoid investing in an ever escalating arms race when these dollars could be better spent” elsewhere.

Lin, the Cal Poly professor, worries that many police officers do not live in the communities they patrol, and remote policing could worsen an “us-versus-them” divide. The Digidog would not be banned under Kallos’ bill, but Lin says military drones offer a cautionary tale. They too began strictly as reconnaissance devices before being weaponized.

“It’s hard to see a reason why this wouldn’t happen with police drones, given the trend toward greater militarization,” Lin says.

Updated, 3-18-21, 12:05pm ET: This article has been updated to include a statement from Boston Dynamics.

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