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Hawaii police using robot dog to screen homeless people for potential illness

A dog-like robot. [RICARDO B. BRAZZIELL/AMERICAN-STATESMAN/TNS]
August 03, 2021

Law enforcement in Honolulu, Hawaii have deployed a robotic “dog” to screen homeless people for potential illness, according to The Associated Press on Friday.

Known as “Spot,” the robot dog can scan an individual’s eyes to detect whether or not they have a fever. The Honolulu Police Department (HPD) allocated roughly $150,000 in federal relief funding to buy the robot dog, which is being used at a government-run homeless encampment near the city’s airport.

“We had numerous staff that had to go on quarantine, numerous officers, civilians, 14 days where they have to go out of work and wait to find out if they’re exposed,” HPD Community Outreach Unit Acting Lieutenant Joseph O’Neal told KHON earlier this year.

“You can’t put a price on someone’s life or their families, so for me if there’s tech that can solve a problem and we can figure it out, I think that was a completely legitimate use of the funds for what we were doing,” Lt. O’Neal added.

The AP reported that police say Spot is a tool that can be used to keep first responders safe, but critics are concerned the equipment could be used in invasive, aggressive or dehumanizing ways.  

“Because these people are houseless it’s considered OK to do that,” said Jongwook Kim, American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii’s legal director. “At some point it will come out again for some different use after the pandemic is over.”

Kim highlighted an incident in 2016 in which Dallas, Texas, law enforcement used a wheeled bomb robot carrying explosives to thwart a terrorist attack.

“There’s the potential for these robots to increase the militarization of police departments and use it in ways that are unacceptable,” he asserted. “Maybe it’s not something we even want to let law enforcement have.”

Lt. O’Neal stands by the department’s use of Spot, saying it has been critical in monitoring the body temperatures of homeless people amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the AP reported.

“We have not had a single person out there that said, ‘That’s scary, that’s worrisome,’” Lt. O’Neal said. “We don’t just walk around and arbitrarily scan people.”

In March, the New York Police Department deployed a similar robotic police dog to help clear a crime scene in the Bronx.

Used during an investigation in the Wakefield section, the 70-pound robotic dog has “cameras and lights mounted on the device which allow the NYPD to view its surroundings in real-time,” police spokesperson Sgt. Jessica McRorie told Fox 5 NY.