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The Need for Legislation Governing Police Use of Robots

Today, fewer than 10% of SWAT raids involve high-danger situations. Journalist Radley Balko wrote in Rise of the Warrior Cop that SWAT teams smash into private American homes over 100 times per day. Most of these raids are to enforce laws against consensual crimes such as illegal drug use. SWAT teams are now used to raid homes for sometimes innocuous offenses such as illegal barbering and copyright violations.

As was the case with SWAT teams, we are currently told police use of robots is limited to those rare, dangerous situations involving bomb disposal and the like. But there is an alarming difference with robots. When SWAT teams were created, they were governed by state lawmakers; in contrast, the use and development of police robotics today has no such legislative oversight.

Residents of New York City didn’t learn that their police department had acquired a Boston Dynamics robot dog until it was photographed at a crime scene. The acquisition wasn’t directed or approved by any elected officials. And a records request by the Massachusetts branch of the American Civil Liberties Union regarding the Massachusetts State Police’s borrowing of a Boston Dynamics robot revealed no departmental use policy.

Police have already escalated the use of robots from defensive missions to offensive ones designed to kill civilians. In 2016, Dallas police manipulated a bomb-disposal robot to enable it to carry explosives and kill a sniper who had killed five officers. While today’s police robots are remotely controlled by humans, technology is advancing to enable robots to autonomously make decisions, eliminating the need for direct human control.

Kristian writes, “[S]ubjecting human life to the decision of a robot is an affront to human dignity.” And what if there is an error in programming or other malfunction? How do we hold police accountable when they claim “the robot did it?” A robot cannot be fired or taken to trial and convicted. Publicly elected legislators, not cops hidden behind closed doors, must determine the types of robots law enforcement may acquire and how they may be used. 


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