By Tandy Lau
Even with a controversial multi-billion-dollar budget, the NYPD is getting into the side hustle of dog-sitting. Except these puppies don’t need walks. The department has announced the acquisition of a pair of canine-shaped robots affectionately coined “Digidogs.” Their arrival is a part of a broader implementation of “innovative policing technologies.”
“Throughout its history, the NYPD has leveraged the latest available technology and pioneered ways to do our critical work safely and effectively,” said NYPD Commissioner Keechant. Sewell. “In every era, we have maximized public and officer safety through emerging technology—and that approach continues today. It is time, again, for the NYPD to adapt, to improve, and to continue exceeding public safety expectations.
“But we want to be clear: The implementation of these technologies will be transparent, consistent, and always done in close collaboration with the people we serve. Our job is to fight crime and keep people safe, and these tools are significant steps forward in that vital mission.”
What tricks can a Digidog perform? The NYPD lauded the robot’s capabilities in “specific critical incidents” deemed too risky or impossible for human officers to access, such as hostage situations or chemically-hazardous zones. Each one is equipped with gauges for radiation, gas, and heat.
“Digidog is now part of the tool kit that we are using,” said Mayor Eric Adams. “And trust me when I tell you this: If a person has a loved one that is in a hostage situation, they want a Digidog, a real dog, and anything else they can get, to keep their family members safe. We are leaving no stone unturned to protect New Yorkers.”
Digidog hit the ground running, with videos of the four-legged robot already at work during a parking garage collapse this week. “Everyone asked why do you [need] a robotic dog,” said Adams on Wednesday. “Because it saves lives. If we didn’t have that robotic dog, we would have placed those firefighters in jeopardy.”
The unit employed in the rescue efforts was reportedly sporting a new, Dalmatian pattern paint-job. But it’s not Cruella opposing Digidog’s rollout.
The robots are paid for by asset forfeiture money, typically seized from drug-related prosecutions, according to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Reforms. The NYPD’s Frank Digiacomo, who commands the unit operating the Digidogs, said around $750,000 of forfeited assets paid for the bots.
Bed-Stuy and Crown Heights Council Member Chi Ossé called the process theft over Twitter, accusing the NYPD of stealing New Yorkers’ property and selling it to buy “robocops.” He joined his City Council colleagues Alexa Aviles, Tiffany Cabán, and Sandy Nurse in a joint statement opposing the robots.
“Once again, Mayor Adams is choosing to invest in a militarized police force rather than in evidence-based public safety strategies,” they said. “This time, he spends our public money on dystopian robot ‘dogs.’ The NYPD already receives billions of dollars that could instead enhance public safety through investment in schools and community spaces.
“As members fighting for historic investments in reducing harm and community violence, we are unified in our categorical opposition to this technology. New Yorkers know that our dollars are best spent on schools, libraries, and infrastructure, not mechanized violence. We rose up to reject the project once before; we will again.”
Two years ago, Digidogs were rejected by the city after critics similarly opposed the robots’ implementation. But Mayor Adams is proudly announcing their return “from the pound.” And they’re here with some friends.
Digidogs are joined by fellow robot K5 ASR, which is best described as a plus-sized cross between R2-D2 and Wall-E’s girlfriend. Such security bots are frequently deployed in public spaces like malls and college campuses.
Beyond robots and androids, the NYPD also announced the implementation of the StarChase system. Think Apple AirTag, but for cars: A GPS marker is attached or fired onto vehicles the NYPD is tracking. The department says the technology will curb high-risk police chases while keeping suspects within the line of (virtual) sight.
Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (S.T.O.P.) communications director William Owen said the implementation of “Digidog’s creepy friends” is concerning from a privacy perspective.
“The StarChase devices allow police to shoot a GPS tracking device at vehicles and individuals and then can track them really anywhere on the planet,” he said. “This is a highly invasive surveillance technology and definitely highly vulnerable to abuse and misuse.
“[K5 robots are] dressed up to appear somehow friendly, but they are yet another surveillance droning tool at the NYPD’s disposal and represent even more spending on militarized surveillance technology for the police.”
He said nonwhite neighborhoods are usually the most surveilled communities through such technologies.
Unlike Digidog, the K5 ASR and StarChase technologies are currently in the pilot phase and on loan from their manufacturers.
Tandy Lau is a Report for America corps member and writes about public safety for the Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by visiting https://bit.ly/amnews1.
Reporter’s Note: William Owen’s title has been adjusted to reflect his position at S.T.O.P.