‘We should have named it Lassie’: NYPD commissioner announces end to robotic dog after complaints of racism

The New York City Police Department will end its use of a robotic ‘dog’ early after receiving increasing complaints that the device is more frequently deployed against suspects of color, according to a Wednesday report.

In a statement to The New York Times, NYPD Deputy Commissioner for Intelligence and Counterterrorism John Miller said the leasing contract with Boston Dynamic, valued at about $94,000, was ended April 22, ahead of its expiration.

He added that the department took the action following a subpoena issued by New York City Councilman Ben Kallos and Council Speaker Corey Johnson, both of whom are Democrats, for records linked to the robot’s missions and use.

Miller added that the lease for the robotic dog was supposed to end in August but the department decided to cancel early because the device was being politicized by some to help support arguments regarding racist surveillance by the NYPD, and that the machine was becoming a “target.”

“People had figured out the catchphrases and the language to somehow make this evil,” Miller told the Times.

That said, Miller did not say that the NYPD would never lease the robot, which has been nicknamed “Digidog,” for use in the future.

“But for now, this is a casualty of politics, bad information and cheap sound bytes,” he told the paper. “We should have named it ‘Lassie.’”

A spokesman for New York City’s Democratic mayor, Bill de Blasio, told the Times he was “glad the Digidog was put down,” going on to characterize the robot as “alienating” and “creepy.”

The Times went on to quote a Boston Dynamics spokesman who said the robotic dogs are not meant to be utilized as weapons or to intimidate anyone.

“We support local communities reviewing the allocation of public funds, and believe Spot is a cost-effective tool comparable to historical robotic devices used by public safety to inspect hazardous environments,” he said, utilizing a different nickname for the robotic dog.

The cancellation of the contract comes after Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), who represents the Bronx, complained about the use of the digital dog, claiming it was primarily being directed at poorer communities of color. She also ripped use of public funds that went towards rental of the machine, which she claimed would be better spent on social issues and schools.

“Shout out to everyone who fought against community advocates who demanded these resources go to investments like school counseling instead. Now robotic surveillance ground drones are being deployed for testing on low-income communities of color with under-resourced schools,” she wrote on Twitter at the time.

“Please ask yourself: when was the last time you saw next-generation, world class technology for education, healthcare, housing, etc consistently prioritized for underserved communities like this?” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted at the time.

However, NYPD officials pushed back, saying the robot would help officers and keep city residents safer.

“This dog is going to save lives, protect people, and protect officers and that’s our goal,” NYPD Technical Assistance Response Unit Inspector Frank Digiacomo told the New York Post.

In an interview with the New York Daily News, Miller said the robot was never intended for use as a surveillance device.

“It was never a piece of ‘surveillance equipment.’ Some people who had an agenda tried to make it out to be for spying. Really?” he said.

“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,” he continued, adding: “This is a piece of equipment we won’t have when it could make police officers or victims safer.”

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Jon Dougherty

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