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Honolulu PD showcases robot dog, says it will benefit community for years

‘Spot’ has primarily been helping at coronavirus screening sites for the homeless, police said

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By Mark Ladao
The Honolulu Star-Advertiser

HONOLULU — The controversial robotic dog that the Honolulu Police Department purchased with federal relief funds last year will be useful for years, the department said.

Known as Spot, the robot HPD bought from Boston Dynamics has been used primarily to get body temperature checks for homeless individuals participating in HPD’s Provisional Outdoor Screening and Triage, or POST, program at Keehi Lagoon.

POST was created to provide housing to homeless individuals in outdoor tent-shelters during the pandemic while linking them to other social services, and is currently serving about 40 people, but once the robot is no longer needed there, it can be used for other purposes.

“I think it has future benefit for the community, if that was an appropriate purpose the chief saw fit, " Joseph O’Neal, acting lieutenant with HPD’s Community Outreach Unit, said Friday at HPD headquarters in downtown Honolulu. “I think it would have a lot of benefit to maybe a chemical spill, a wreckage ... (or ) disaster relief areas.”

HPD personnel, including O’Neal, held a demonstration to show local media outlets what Spot is capable of doing. It was able to read body temperatures, avoid obstacles and walk up and down stairs during the demonstration.

Last year HPD used $150, 000 in CARES Act money—meant for relief from the impacts of COVID-19—during the height of the coronavirus pandemic, which crippled Hawaii’s economy and drove up unemployment, business closures and housing concerns, among a wide range of other problems.

The department has been criticized during much of the course of the pandemic over its handling of federal aid—ranging from purchases like all-terrain vehicles and Spot to spending on overtime—which has led to questioning internally and externally and from the local to the federal level.

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But HPD still believes Spot was a worthwhile investment, not only for the future, but currently as well.

One reason is because, prior to Spot, police officers would have to do face-to-face interviews with POST participants that last about 20 minutes, according to O’Neal.

At the time of the purchase, when less was known about the coronavirus and prior to the development of COVID-19 vaccines, temperature scans and intake interviews appeared to be a riskier task for police officers, according to O’Neal, who did the research on Spot when HPD was deciding how to spend federal money allocated to it.

“When you talk about a human life or transmitting COVID to either the participants (of POST ) or the officers, this eliminates that human-to-human (interaction ), " O’Neal said.

Spot is currently being used only for “humanitarian " purposes, he said, and cannot be equipped with weapons, but it can be used in other emergency situations if needed.

Honolulu Councilwoman Heidi Tsuneyoshi, who heads the Council’s Public Safety Committee, said she understands Spot’s use.

“It was pretty clear as to why such a technology was needed, especially at such a specialized site such as POST, " Tsuneyoshi said. “I was satisfied and understood why HPD decided to purchase such equipment.”

She agreed that Spot will have a long shelf life, even after coronavirus temperature checks are no longer necessary.

“I’m quite sure this will have a useful life for quite some time, " Tsuneyoshi said. “And when none of us have to do temperature checks anymore no matter where we go, there will be something, I’m sure, that the technology will be useful for.”

During the City Council meeting in January, Tsuneyoshi had O’Neal and other HPD officers explain the Spot purchase and thanked them afterward for doing so.

POST is an offshoot of the city’s Homeless Outreach and Navigation for Unsheltered Persons, or HONU, which this week opened a location in Wahiawa. Tsuneyoshi said there aren’t any plans to use Spot at that location.

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