State your case: Should the NYPD have returned its robot dog?

Following the deployment of a robotic K-9 in February 2021, public backlash led the NYPD to send ‘Digidog’ back to the doghouse


Do you agree with the NYPD's decision to return the tactical robot in response to public criticism? Click here to answer our poll. 

In February of this year, the NYPD used a 70-pound robot known as Digidog to help clear a crime scene in the Bronx. Cameras and lights mounted on the device allowed officers to view the robot’s surroundings in real-time.

Unfortunately, the deployment of Digidog resulted in public criticism that drew a comparison to the sci-fi horror television series “Black Mirror,” which featured a killer robot dog in one of its episodes. In response, NYPD canceled its contract with the robot’s manufacturer Boston Dynamics and Digidog was returned to the pound.

John Miller, the NYPD deputy commissioner for intelligence and counterterrorism, pushed back against criticism, saying the robot could be used to survey scenes like standoffs, hostage situations, chemical spills and other scenarios where humans might be at risk. 

“It was never a piece of ‘surveillance equipment.’ Some people who had an agenda tried to make it out to be for spying. Really?” said Miller to the Daily News. “It was loud when it walked, had a camera for a head, flashing lights and a speaker and a police officer could use to communicate if needed. It wasn’t exactly going to be shadowing anyone down the street or hiding in a doorway on surveillance.” 

Should the NYPD have returned its robot dog? That is the question our columnists are debating in this month’s State Your Case. Share your thoughts on the NYPD's decision below

The ground rules: As in an actual debate, the pro and con sides are assigned randomly as an exercise in critical thinking and analyzing problems from different perspectives.

Our debaters: Jim Dudley, a 32-year veteran of the San Francisco Police Department where he retired as deputy chief of the Patrol Bureau, and Chief Joel Shults, EdD, who retired as chief of police in Colorado.

Jim Dudley: People want unbiased, neutral, color-blind and efficient policing, right? Well, the New York Police Department tried something innovative that seemed to fit the bill for all of the above by deploying the Digidog, a robot designed to “survey scenes like standoffs with barricaded armed suspects, hostage situations, and chemical or radiation incidents where a human being might be at risk.” 

In the current climate, where law enforcement has been criticized for biased and race-based policing, isn’t it time we turned to color-blind technology to help solve crime? It seems like the best time to insert technology to identify and enforce laws without any association to race, gender, or ethnicity. If programmed correctly in regard to behaviors, robotic forms of policing – whether they be drones, fixed cameras, or robots – should be implemented and accepted. Collateral benefits are improved officer safety and reduced incidents of use of force.

Joel Shults: I’m totally on board with your argument, Jim, but let’s face it, Digidog is creepy. A reality of this current bizarro world of law enforcement leadership is making decisions based purely on rational, objective criteria or on the fickle and unpredictable objections of critics of policing.

The fringe wants us gone, the left wants us less and the mainstream wants reform (whatever that is) because that’s the tune that gets played every day. We can write off the critics, but right now they have a degree of influence that can’t be ignored. That doesn’t mean that we kowtow to every crazy idea, but it would be unwise to ignore the complaints.

I haven’t read anything that indicates Digidog can accomplish more than other well-established robotic tools. Taking a step back, saying “We listened to you” and recognizing the optics of the controversy could have a positive effect on public trust. To an extent, public relations is theatre. This is an act ready for the curtain.

Jim Dudley: Alright Joel, you make a case that certainly appeals to those with level heads. The reality is those with the “crazy ideas” have effectively shut down cities and de-funded police. They have put law enforcement in harm’s way with some of their new policies in regard to de-escalation and use of force.

Of course, rational people say: “Do not defund the police, we want police to prevent crime, we want district attorneys to prosecute criminals, not befriend them, we want convicted offenders to serve the majority of their sentences.” For the others (including councils, mayors, governors and some in DC), we need to show them how their arguments do not hold water.

Let’s do an experiment where police are not the guinea pigs. Many are under the misconception that if we take away the basis for the offender/police interaction, then the number of deaths will stop. There have been calls to eliminate traffic stops for equipment and vehicle violations. One assemblyman wants to do away with jaywalking. Cities are sending other departments to disputes or calls involving the mentally ill in crisis.

Let’s try all traffic enforcement using only robots to see the violation and issue the citation (I hope the contract comes with a collections agency option for unpaid fines). Let’s send robots via smartphones to take reports that do not require live cops. Let’s send robots to show videos to those in crisis who may be armed so they have a chance to calm down. With all of that said, tongue firmly in cheek, AI is becoming a real part of policing.

Joel Shults: It is painful to give hyper critics a victory, but the Digidog seems like a gimmick that can be put back in the crate. Trying to mollify all of the protests is a lost cause, so I’m not advocating that.

I think we all sense that there’s a huge element of “damned if you do and damned if you don’t” right now. The same people who say the Capitol Police were unprepared then show up another day and say riot gear and armored rescue vehicles look too militaristic for police use. The same people who would be incensed that a hostage-taker was shot are going to be incensed about the police having a scary robot that could have provided intel, distraction and communication to resolve the situation.

All I’m saying is that we need to be careful about the possible disconnects between our good intentions and the public. Think of the well-intentioned husband who buys a vacuum cleaner for his wife on their anniversary. Sure, it makes sense, but it’s not likely to be received as well as hoped.

Police1 readers respond

  • I think the NYPD's decision to return Digidog is merely postponing the inevitable. The future of law enforcement, along with most jobs and industries, is the automation of automatable tasks utilizing technological advancements in artificial intelligence, machine learning, deep learning, big data and robotics. It seems police departments of the future will have to do more with less, considering the difficulties many departments are experiencing in hiring new officers and retaining top talent. Smart infrastructure and associated technologies can deal with most traffic violations. Machine learning algorithms can analyze thousands of photos, videos and corresponding data; they're already assisting police with solving crimes including information on who likely committed the offense in various countries. Predictive policing algorithms have helped lower crime rates in the cities in which it's utilized. A significant portion of police work involves mundane patrols and resolving civil disputes, much of which is repetitive and therefore automatable. These tools are cost-effective, unbiased, unprejudiced and becoming highly efficient. In addition, machines can help keep public service members and citizens safer during police encounters. Why not use Digidog and related solutions when they have the potential to solve so many problems that plague modern cities and police departments?

  • Law enforcement as a whole, won’t know the extent of the benefits of the robot until they put it to use. If you look at it, it’s a UAV with legs. I think it would also serve as a great link to the younger generation and PD relations with them. They generally show a great interest in robotics. Pulling him gives in to a small, and unfortunately vocal, group.

  • The implementation of this equipment was a smart move by the NYPD, and I think they folded to social pressure. What is the difference between a robot with legs vs a robot on treads? It is something to keep the officers (and suspects) safe, and cameras are impartial reporting tools.

  • It was a bad decision based on social pressure and feelings vs. officer safety. The use of this tool has far more advantages for public safety, officer safety and scene size-up than disadvantages.

  • Sending it back was not the right thing to do unless it was not completing missions.

  • It is unthinkable that this device, which could have saved an officer or subject's life, was returned. The NYPD and all agencies need to realize that there will always be pushback no matter what is purchased. We need to return to common sense and good police tactics.

  • While the arguments above are compelling, let's keep this simple, it was a simple tool. It was a tool that could not be used to hurt anyone (as least from what I can tell). Based on the description by Deputy Commissioner Miller, the robot is a noisy instrument that couldn't be used for surveillance, even if they wanted to. Sounds to me that the robot dog is no different from the bomb disposal robots. 

    As much as I understand we are in a very hostile climate today, maybe if the NYPD had used social media platforms to introduce the robot to the people, it wouldn't have gotten the backlash it did. I just wish that we as a profession would stop pandering to the so few. It's time for us to stand up and tell the people what we are handling every day for them while they try to stay protected in their homes.

    By the very nature of who we are, we keep to ourselves, sadly we can't do that and we must reach out to the communities to let them know not only who we are but what we are trying to do for them. I'm not talking about stroking people, I'm talking about being real with them and let them see the ugliness that we see. We can longer operate in the dark. As much as I'm all about the thin blue line, we can't hide behind it, we have to inform the public that we are sons, daughters, fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters, etc. They need to know we are human and are affected by the pain and suffering they go through, that is why we do our jobs. 

NEXT: How to buy tactical robots (eBook)

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