Purchase of SWAT bots questioned by Pittsburgh council

·3 min read

Jun. 2—Pittsburgh City Council members gave preliminary approval Wednesday for the police department to buy two small robots equipped with cameras.

But they did so only after discussion among members and asking the police department's Special Deployment Cmdr. Ed Trapp about how the robots will be used.

"It's just distressing to a lot of the populations that we'd be talking about robots and policing in the same sentence," Councilwoman Deb Gross said. "We've seen police forces using some big, scary looking robots in other cities."

Gross said she isn't comfortable with Pittsburgh's department using those robots. She asked whether the robots should be bought in light of a law restricting police purchase of military equipment was passed last year.

"This isn't a military thing. It's used by law enforcement all over the world," Trapp said of the Throwbot, which is larger than a handgun but smaller than a shoe box.

It's equipped with a camera and is designed to be thrown into a place where someone is barricaded, like hostage situations and other incidents where the police special weapons and tactics (SWAT) team is used.

If a person doesn't follow commands, and police can't see what they're doing, the Throwbot is used to give police a visual of what they're facing, Trapp said.

"We don't put any additions on them," he said. "We only use them as surveillance reconnaissance cameras."

The department has two Throwbots now and they're about eight years old, public safety spokeswoman Cara Cruz said.

"They are old and have aged out of operation and repair," she said.

Public Safety Director Wendell Hissrich asked council for the authorization to buy two new ones for $26,808. The old robots will be traded in for $5,000 off the $15,495 each new Throwbot costs. The department will also buy two carrying bags for the robots.

"This is technology at its best," Councilman Anthony Coghill said. "It's a tool we hope we don't have to use."

Other council members agreed a council discussion was needed before the purchase was approved.

Councilwoman Erika Strassburger asked Trapp to clarify if the robots would be used in a large crowd, like a protest.

"We never use this for anything other than SWAT calls," Trapp said.

Councilman Ricky Burgess said the discussion is important as the city works to "reimagine police."

"Technology is always a little scary, but tools are tools," Burgess said.

He likened the robot to a steak knife, which can be used to cut food, but also can "become a vicious weapon."

It's important for council to have assurances the robot won't be used as a weapon, he said.

Other cities have stepped up the game from a small robot equipped with a camera to a robotic dog nicknamed Digidog that was used by New York police until public outcry prompted the police to terminate the lease on it.

"We're talking about changing the hearts and minds of how police operate," Burgess said. "We need to have this conversation. It's going to be a long conversation."

Council ultimately unanimously recommended considering approving the purchase when it meets next week.

Tom Davidson is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tom at 724-226-4715, tdavidson@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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