Honolulu police turned the CARES Act, meant by Congress to bring relief from the COVID-19 outbreak, into the AINOKEA Act by blowing the funding on expensive toys such as trucks, ATVs and a $150,000 robotic dog named Spot.
HPD tried to justify the spending spree, which prompted a federal inquiry, by recently trotting out the yellow-and-black robo-dog to do tricks for the news media.
Spot, which moves with more of a goose step than a canine trot, was touted by police as “humanitarian” technology, but so far it’s been used to dehumanize poor people.
HPD has deployed Spot mainly to take temperatures of the homeless at its Provisional Outdoor Screening and Triage program at Keehi Lagoon.
Police essentially said they needed to remove “the human element” from the process to prevent officers from being exposed to the cooties of the homeless.
Yet elsewhere around the state, human beings with proper protective gear managed to safely take temperatures of, and maybe offer a friendly word for, those who had the benefit of housing and health insurance.
In a program at The Queen’s Medical Center, real tail-wagging dogs have proved highly successful at sniffing out COVID.
In these fraught times, avoiding human-to-human police interactions with the public should be the last thing they do.
As of February, according to The New York Times, Honolulu was one of only three U.S. police departments that have tried the robotic dog, along with New York City and the Massachusetts State Police.
New York returned its to the manufacturer, Boston Dynamics, after a public uproar when it appeared with police at a public housing project. Mayor Bill de Blasio said the robot is “creepy, alienating and sends the wrong message.”
The robo-dogs sell mostly to utilities and other companies to patrol oil rigs and factories, get into spaces too dangerous for humans and sniff out gas leaks, chemical spills and radiation.
HPD said Spot will be useful long-term in keeping officers at safe distances in dangerous situations, although details are sparse.
“Right now it seems to be a fancy toy in search of an actual use,” said one critic in New York.
HPD won over some former City Council critics with sweet-talking at an after-the-fact briefing.
But if the need was legitimate, they should have presented it to the Council in the regular budget process, subject to full public review and comment, instead of sneaking it through with relief funds more needed elsewhere.
There’s no good reason HPD, which is always crying about underfunding, should have put us at the forefront of this costly fringe technology.
If they want to be on the cutting edge of technology, how about learning to use the body cameras our tax dollars bought to bring the transparent accountability promised in police/public encounters instead of arbitrarily releasing videos they think make them look good and withholding those that don’t?
Reach David Shapiro at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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