Winnipeg police are under the gun for being the only force in Canada to acquire a robot that's generated controversy in the U.S. for being heavy-handed policing.
The service insists the $257,000 device will help keep the city safe.
"To me it's like a big eff-you to Winnipeggers," said University of Winnipeg criminologist Kevin Walby.
"It touches on so many of the issues facing policing: their budgets relative to those for community development, militarization, aggressive policing (and) police violence."
Boston Dynamics dubs its 32-kilogram robot "Spot," which can navigate obstacles and uneven terrain, unlike robots police have used for decades that manoeuvre on wheels and tracks.
The four-legged robot dog can walk up and down stairs, facilitate a conversation remotely and will be outfitted with an arm that can open doorknobs.
Police say that’s needed to deal with armed and barricaded incidents, which occurred 89 times last year, including when someone is held hostage.
"This robotic platform is truly a piece of safety equipment," Insp. Brian Miln said Thursday.
"We truly believe it is going to enhance safety for our front-line members… and by proxy, for the citizens of Winnipeg."
Boston Dynamics lists Spot’s purchase price at US$74,500. Winnipeg police are spending $257,000 to buy one device, outfit it with an arm and cameras, and to cover taxes and shipping.
"It touches on so many of the issues facing policing: their budgets relative to those for community development, militarization, aggressive policing (and) police violence." – U of W criminologist Kevin Walby
The cost will be covered by the province's proceeds-of-crime fund: money and assets seized from criminals which is used to pay for police resources.
City Coun. Markus Chambers chairs the police board, which reviews overall procurement but not individual expenses.
"Could the money be spent in other areas? Potentially, but if we are talking about the safety of officers, (police) dogs and the public, it's something that is worth this investment," he said.
Walby argued the device is intimidating, and said more of that funding should go to housing and anti-poverty initiatives, given that Winnipeg spends a larger share of its budget on policing than most Canadian cities.
"They made a very greedy decision to buy a toy and I think that really reflects their greedy worldview," said Walby.
“They made a very greedy decision to buy a toy and I think that really reflects their greedy worldview.” – U of W criminologist Kevin Walby
Miln countered that his colleagues have been monitoring the device’s use and development over the past two to three years, and felt it had proven its use as a public-safety tool.
"We are, in fact, leading the charge here in Winnipeg as being the first law enforcement agency in Canada to acquire this piece of technology," he said.
American law professors who specialize in police technology have raised concerns about the efficacy of robot-dog devices, and the possibility that police will use them to surveil people beyond the ability of human officers.
For example, Elizabeth Joh of the University of California, Davis, has argued a "Spot" device could easily be used with facial recognition or thermal imaging if there aren’t strict guidelines to restrict their use, which she has argued must be made public.
The New York Police Department stopped using the robot in April, after citizens complained it was creepy. Democrat representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez called it a "robotic surveillance ground drone." The force cancelled its contract for the device, which it had dubbed "Digidog."
In 2019, Massachusetts State Police reported numerous issues with a test run of the robot, including that it toppled while walking up stairs, according to internal records obtained by tech site OneZero. The bomb squad couldn’t get the device to assess a suspicious package as it kept going into "sit" mode instead of walking over, and it provided poor video quality.
Boston Dynamics did not respond to interview requests.
Miln said the police won’t use the tool until they have a firm understanding of when it should be deployed.
"We are in the midst of working on a very robust procedure, in terms of the operational use of this tool (and which) situations that it can be used in," he said.
"This robotic platform is truly a piece of safety equipment." – Insp. Brian Miln
"We wouldn't use something like this to intimidate somebody or use it at the expense of somebody's rights or their dignity. We would never use a tool like this for nefarious purposes, such as that."
The acquisition comes at a time when polls show a growing unease toward the Winnipeg Police Service, and an ongoing reckoning over the role of police and how they have treated racialized and Indigenous people.
Winnipeg police acquire controversial robot dogClick to Expand
Posted: 6:06 PM Jul. 28, 2021
The Winnipeg Police Service is set to acquire a pricey dog-shaped robot, to be used in hostage situations, that's already been ditched by police in New York City.
"Spot" is made by Boston Dynamics, which sells the device for US$74,500. Winnipeg police are spending $257,000 to acquire and use Spot. The 32-kilogram robot "has the ability to navigate obstacles, uneven terrain (and) situations where our traditional robot platforms can't go into," said Insp. Brian Miln at a news conference Wednesday.
"They don't seem to be listening to the critiques, saying we want fewer resources for police; we want less aggressive policing and more resources for social development," said Walby.
He argues it fits the trend of the Winnipeg service, which bought an armoured vehicle and helicopter, and takes them to community events to impress children.
The police insist this technology is crucial for catching people trying to evade the police and dealing with heavily armed people, publishing reports with data to back up those assertions, which criminologists have disputed.
"Given this trend of them buying these sorts of toys for publicity, more than functionality, they'll probably end up using it more in that form than anything else," Walby said.
Miln insisted police will use the device for public safety, but said no one should be surprised if it shows up at a children’s event.
"Is there a potential use, to reach out and engage with the community with some of these tools? Absolutely, it doesn’t always have be a serious, operational use," he said.
"Just as there are people who oppose the certain types of technologies, we still have a whole group of people who are interested and keen in the technologies."