Honolulu police spent $150k on a robot dog to monitor homeless people

LISBON , PORTUGAL - 7 November 2019; Spot, Boston Dynamics, Robot, on Centre Stage during the final ...
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Last spring, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the federal government passed the CARES Act to free up billions of dollars to states and local governments so they could extend aid to people in need. The Honolulu Police Department, which operates in a city that ranks among the highest in the entire country in per capita homelessness, decided that the best way that it could spend some cash would be to drop more than $150,000 on a robot dog that it used to harass homeless people.

According to Honolulu Civil Beat, the city's police department spent $150,045 of its more than $40 million in CARES Act funding to purchase Spot, the dystopian four-legged robot from Boston Dynamics that regularly makes the rounds of social media with clips of it dancing or opening doors. While Spot, the first horseman of the robot apocalypse, typically retails for $74,500, extra features can more than double the price — and it appears the HPD ordered the works. The agency then deployed the souped-up dogbot, equipped with thermal cameras, at a location where a portion of the city's homeless population was living. It used the bot to monitor temperatures from a distance and determine if any of those living in the tent city were displaying signs of a fever. In other words: HPD's Spot might have been the world's most expensive thermometer.

The HPD made some other major purchases with its share of the CARES Act funding, including dropping more than $27,000 on a drone, $500,000 on ATVs, and $4.1 million on trucks, according to Honolulu Civil Beat. But few purchases drew as much ire as Spot. The police department attempted to justify the money it spent on the robot by saying that it would actually save the agency money because it wouldn't have to pay officers additional overtime to administer temperature and wellness checks to the city's homeless population. Spot also limited direct exposure to potential coronavirus infections, the department claimed, which at least feels like a legitimate explanation — though the idea that remote temperature checks require a fully decked-out robo-dog feels a bit dubious.

While Spot might have saved HPD some overtime pay, it seems as though it was still being operated by an officer who was on the clock. In a statement to Vice, Boston Dynamics said, "Spot was under the control of a human operator and used to remove humans from potentially hazardous environments." The company also noted that the robo-pup "is not designed or intended to replace a police officer or social worker, but rather to augment the work of public safety officials and police departments."

The problem with Spot the police dog is not necessarily the utilization of the robot pup itself — though, don't get it twisted, a robot patrolling and monitoring unhoused people is way up there on the list of dystopian hellscapes. But the real injustice is what could have been done with they money instead. While the Honolulu Police Department got $40 million from the CARES Act and spent a good chunk of it on toys, the city's Household Relief Fund — which was set up to help people with rent and utilities payments — got just $25 million. Honolulu also did not appear to take advantage of other federal programs designed to help unhoused people remain safe during the pandemic, including a Federal Emergency Management Agency program that offered full reimbursement to house homeless people.

Homeless people are among our most vulnerable populations. They have a much higher mortality rate than the general population — a fact that came into stark focus because of the coronavirus outbreak. According to National Alliance to End Homelessness, homeless people were twice as likely to be hospitalized, two to four times more likely to require critical care, and two to three times more likely to die than others during the pandemic.

The best way to help this population is simple: Provide them with homes. It is cheaper than any alternative and provides better results. It's also far less dehumanizing than patrolling their encampments with a robot dog that was bought with money that could have helped to house them.