LOS ANGELES – The Los Angeles City Council voted 8-4 Tuesday to approve the donation of a so-called robot dog for use by the Los Angeles Police Department following more than an hour of public comment against the device and criticism from a council member.
The council moved to accept the donation with an amendment introduced by Councilwoman Katy Yaroslavsky to ensure the LAPD provides quarterly reports regarding the deployment of the device, outcomes of the deployment, and any issues pertaining to the use of it.
In addition, the council will “closely monitor” the $277,917 Quadruped Unmanned Ground Vehicle and ultimately modify the deployment policy or suspend the use of the device at any time.
“As with the use of any new technology used in policing, it is important that the City Council have appropriate oversight and the ability to modify or half the program if circumstances warrant,” Yaroslavsky said.
Council members Heather Hutt, Curren Price, Nithya Raman, and Hugo Soto- Martinez voted against the donation. Council members Eunisses Hernandez and Marqueece Harris-Dawson were absent from Tuesday’s City Council meeting.
The device, built by Boston Dynamics, was offered as a donation to the LAPD’s Metropolitan Division by the Los Angeles Police Foundation.
After the vote, someone tagged inside city hall with a marker https://t.co/tdAMEZ7o0n pic.twitter.com/4eu91n14i7— Brittny Mejia (@brittny_mejia) May 23, 2023
Most members of the public, who spoke during public comment, urged the council to decline the donation, stating it would only be used to further criminalize and harm the Black and Latino communities of the city.
“This is the third time that this has been on the agenda and, hopefully, you guys will make the right decision to let this be the last time and strike it out,” said Emerald Johnson, who spoke against the robot.
“We, your constituents, do not want the robot dog. It’s not just a donation, and this will cost us a lot more in the long run.”
Brendan Schulman, vice president of policy and government for Boston Dynamics, and David Kowlaski, deputy chief for the LAPD, came forward to answer questions from Soto-Martinez.
The councilman, in a tense exchange, asked Schulman to provide details in which unarmed technology was used in 2022. An LAPD report indicated unarmed technology was deployed 39 times in various parts of the city.
“Obviously, one of the concerns expressed in the last council meeting was whether technology used by us was disproportionately being utilized in some neighborhoods of Los Angeles,” Kowlaski said. “A review of those deployments on both the sUAS (small unmanned aerial systems) as well as the (ground-based) robotics, we found no specific trends or patterns related to those deployments.”
Soto-Martinez refuted that it “just isn’t true,” as LAPD unarmed devices were deployed more often in Hollywood and South Central compared to some of L.A.’s more affluent neighborhoods and communities.
Kowlaski reassured the council the LAPD has “clearly defined situations for use with a strict approval process.”
LAPD representatives previously assured that the device would be used only in SWAT situations, hazardous materials or search-and-rescue operations. Police also insisted the robot will never be equipped with any sort of weapons or facial-recognition technology, nor would it be used in any type of patrol operations.
The councilman further asked Schulman to share which cities also contracted with Boston Dynamics for use of the QUGV device and the extent of those relationships.
Schulman said he did not have a full list of other cities, but he gave the Houston Police Department and the New York City Police Department as examples of law enforcement agencies who are contracted with his company.
“The robot is primarily used in industrial applications,” Schulman said. “Less than 10% of our customers are public safety agencies such as LAPD.”
In response to a question from the councilman seeking to understand the financial cost of the contract with Boston Dynamics, Schulman did not provide an answer. Soto-Martinez wondered about the financial cost for the contract with New York.
Schulman said NYPD purchased two robots, and the cost is “a matter of public record.” The value of the technology and the mission of the company is to “create robots that help people,” he added.
Soto-Martinez said the donation represents an “expansion of the current boundaries around policing and surveillance.”
“We know, like we’ve seen in the past, these donations usually end being a line item in the budget and the (representative) from Boston Dynamics didn’t want to reveal the contract with New York City, which leads me to more suspicion,” Soto-Martinez said.
“You know, this is highly disturbing automation of law enforcement that sets a dangerous precedent for our future in our community safety.”
Other council members, however, defended the donation as adding a tool that would assist officers engaged in life-threatening situations.
Councilman John Lee noted that the ground-based robot is nimble and can perform tasks such as opening doors and accessing areas that aerial drones cannot — providing a valuable tool in cases such as a barricade situation or other standoff.
“This has the ability to save lives,” Lee said.