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NYPD's high-tech robots are creeping out New Yorkers

ELISSA NADWORNY, HOST:

Robots descended on New York City's Times Square last week. No, they were not part of some dystopian movie set. The NYPD was showing off some robotic devices it's using to work alongside human officers. And while police are excited, some New Yorkers are worried about privacy, or they just think it's creepy. Samantha Max of member station WNYC has this story.

SAMANTHA MAX, BYLINE: Mayor Eric Adams and New York City police officials gather just steps away from the billboards and flashing lights to show off three high-tech gadgets. NYPD Commissioner Keechant Sewell says the department has a long history of being out in front of using new technologies, from fingerprints to the 911 system.

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KEECHANT SEWELL: In every era, we have maximized public and officer safety through emerging technology, and that approach continues today.

MAX: One gadget, called the StarChase, lets officers shoot a GPS device onto a car so they can track it without a high-speed pursuit. Another device, called the K5, looks kind of like a tiny rocket ship on wheels and has cameras and microphones that can patrol a designated area. And then there are the black-and-yellow Digidogs. These robots have four legs and can navigate sidewalk curbs or walk up and down the stairs. The NYPD is buying two of them to go into dangerous situations like hostage negotiations or bomb threats. Here's Sewell again.

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SEWELL: Our job is to fight crime and keep people safe, and these tools are significant steps forward in that vital mission.

MAX: Technology has become a big part of policing, from gunshot detection systems to drones and body cameras. But robots roaming city streets is a whole different level. Ashley Johnson with the Washington, D.C.-based Information Technology and Innovation Foundation says it's important that officers be properly trained and that laws or policies are in place to protect people's privacy. Johnson says the cost of a lot of these technologies puts them out of reach for smaller departments.

ASHLEY JOHNSON: Is the benefit in terms of hours saved or lives saved worth the potential upfront cost?

MAX: The NYPD is spending $750,000 on its two new Digidogs and tens of thousands more to lease the StarChase and K5 devices.

JOHNSON: So it's not a very accessible technology for your average police department.

MAX: Mayor Adams says the cost is worth it. In fact, he says this is just the beginning and that city officials are scanning the globe for other gadgets that can make New York safer.

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ERIC ADAMS: This is not paying and wasting. This is an investment in our public safety.

MAX: The NYPD tried to use the Digidog a few years ago but got rid of it amid major public outcry. Now it's back, and many New Yorkers aren't happy. They want the city to spend money on libraries and housing in schools. Some people are also worried about Big Brother-like surveillance. Here's Albert Fox Cahn with the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project.

ALBERT FOX CAHN: I promise that if there is a series of new technologies, there's going to be a series of new lawsuits.

MAX: After the big demonstration in Times Square, people crowded in to get a glimpse of the robots. Preacher Loc Amadeus from the Bronx says he doesn't want devices to invade his privacy. Amadeus, who's Black, also says sending robots into neighborhoods could further erode trust between police and people of color.

LOC AMADEUS: It's hard to get people to express humanity on both sides, be it the police or my community. So to think that a robot is going to express humanity is really crazy.

MAX: And he says he doesn't like it.

For NPR News, I'm Samantha Max in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Samantha Max covers criminal justice for WPLN and joins the newroom through the Report for America program. This is her second year with Report for America: She spent her first year in Macon, Ga., covering health and inequity for The Telegraph and macon.com.
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