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Police Robots: Preventing Crime Or Just 'Security Theater'?

In 2014, the company Knightscope said it wanted to create a fleet of robots that would cruise through shopping malls, corporate campuses and other public spaces, collecting data and alerting law enforcement to trouble.

Nearly a decade later, one of the company's 5-foot-2-inch, 400-pound robots is working the graveyard shift, patrolling the Times Square subway station for the country's largest police department alongside a human police officer.

Former Texas officer and Knightscope co-founder Stacey Stephens said nearly a dozen departments now use the Knightscope 5, or K5, and success stories from its deployment in the private sector are attracting the attention of other law enforcement agencies, reports USA Today.

Matthew Guariglia of the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation said like the rise of gunshot detection or facial recognition technology, it's possible "we are going to see a lot more robots as the next big trend."

Police have used robots for decades for tasks like bomb disposal and surveillance. Law enforcement officials say the new generation of autonomous robots like the K5 can gather vital information, help assess dangerous situations and limit the need for the use of force by keeping officers out of harm's way.

Law enforcement's use of devices like the K5 and robotic dogs produced by Boston Dynamics has been criticized by communities and privacy advocates concerned about the technology's efficacy, increased surveillance, the potential for weaponization and the lack of clear laws and policies governing its use.

"We need to ask questions of our departments about ... what these robots really do, what information they detect. And if these robots are going to be the thing that summons armed police to a situation, how and when do they do that?" Guariglia said.

"I do absolutely believe that robotics and technology like this are going to become much, much more commonplace and much more frequently used, and the reason for it is because it does allow for gathering of information and intelligence so that decision makers, officers, whomever can make better decisions," said Thor Eells of the National Tactical Officers Association.

Law enforcement's use of robots in certain situations has been denounced. In 2021, officials in Honolulu faced criticism for using $150,000 in federal pandemic relief money to buy a Spot and use the robot to scan body temperatures at a shelter where homeless people could quarantine and get tested for COVID-19.

New York City Mayor Eric Adams said the K5 patrolling the Times Square subway station will record video that can be used in case of an emergency or a crime and has a button citizens can use to report incidents. Adams said the city is leasing K5 for about $9 per hour, less than minimum wage.

Andrew Ferguson, a law professor at American University, said there's not enough data to determine how effective the robots are at preventing crime. He said the devices are likely an example of "security theater," meaning a public safety measure that is highly visible that does little to affect crime.


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