Robot dog approved for LAPD is alarming privacy activists

Written by Amy Ta, produced by Marcelle Hutchins

A robot dog, developed by Boston Dynamics, inspects a suburban rapid transit dock near Paris, France, April 18, 2023. REUTERS/Sarah Meyssonnier.

The LAPD will soon get a new non-human member. The Los Angeles City Council voted on Tuesday to allow the department to get its first robot SWAT dog. It costs around $280,000 and will be paid for by a donation from the Los Angeles Police Foundation. 

LA Times Metro Reporter Brittny Mejia attended that council meeting. She explains that the robot’s purpose is to collect, process, and send information to officers — who are controlling its movements with a tablet-like device — so those officers can avoid dangerous and potentially violent encounters, such as with armed individuals. The robot can climb stairs, open doors, navigate rugged terrain, and features 360-degree cameras. It’s supposed to be deployed in places that require Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) units. It can’t sniff out bombs but can suss out chemical spills. 

It’s unclear why the robot is designed to resemble a dog. It’s the size of a full-grown Dalmatian and weighs 70 pounds, reports Mejia. She adds that activists say calling it a dog “makes it sound cute” and not dangerous. 

However, dogs have historically been used against communities of color, so it may seem menacing in some places. Mejia says in the council meeting, people kept raising the concern that the device could potentially harm and spy on Black and Brown communities.

This robot — designed by Boston Dynamics — was used in New York about two years ago and caused controversy. The former mayor pulled it, but then last month, current Mayor Eric Adams reintroduced it.

“There was public outcry after a viral video showed the robot with officers during a hostage situation at a high-rise public housing building. And then there was another instance of it at public housing. And so critics were basically saying the device was being used in an over-policed community, and they were raising concerns about privacy and data collection,” says Mejia. 

As for LA now, it’s unclear when the police department will deploy the robot dog.