St. Petersburg Police Chief Holloway discusses SPOT during a press conference yesterday.
Yesterday, St. Petersburg Police Department introduced the public to “SPOT,” a robotic dog that will assist the department’s SWAT team in high-risk and life threatening situations.
Spot can run up to four miles an hour, has thermal cameras to see in the dark, and one of them even performed in a commercial that aired in this year’s Super Bowl.
But wait, there’s more.
SPOT was brought to you by the Home Shopping Network (HSN), an organization known for peddling household wares and trinkets using high-pressure sales tactics.
According to SPPD, the Speer Foundation gifted the department $226,000 for the robodog, but what the local media didn’t mention in their reporting yesterday is that the Speer Foundation came into existence via HSN proceeds, according to the foundation’s website.
The website tells the story of how HSN founder Roy Speer launched the organization in 1986, and also outlines its goals.
“The biggest and most significant impact on his overall business career happened in 1982 when he co-founded Home Shopping Network,” the site reads. “With his financial prosperity, Roy established the Roy M. Speer Foundation in 1986 primarily to provide support to charitable, religious, scientific, literary and educational organizations. He believed in giving back to his community.”
St. Pete Police doesn’t fall into any of those categories necessarily, but Speer’s successors Lisa and Brett Speer Vickers decided to put a quarter of a million toward the robodog.
SPOT opening a door.
“With tools like this, the officers stress levels go way, way down. As you know, officers are human beings just like us—if anyone is in fear for their life, they’re going to make different decisions,” Vickers told WFLA.
SPPD said that SPOT, which is not acronym but was written in all caps in the press release, will be used to de-escalate intense situations or stand-offs, avoid use of force, or any situation putting an officer or the suspect at risk with gunfire.
“This would be especially useful in situations where a suspect is barricaded in a building or is holding hostages,” SPPD wrote in a press release.
The department said that SPOT will not be used for any action to intimidate or coerce any person not involved in a high-risk incident.
The sleek yellow and black robotic dog, crafted by Boston Dynamics, comes with a 360-degree camera, so the user can see what’s in front of it and control its movement from a distance. It “is not a weapon” according to SPPD, and doesn’t carry anything that can harm people or animals.
An high-quality intercom allows the operator to hear and speak to people standing near SPOT. And to top it off, the dog can dance, prance and even hold a beer, as shown in this year’s Super Bowl commercial.
Around the country, law enforcement’s use of Boston Dynamics’ robodogs has been followed by heavy criticism and controversy.
In December of 2020, the New York Police Department announced a similar “Digidog” program, echoing SPPD’s statements that their robotic dogs are also “not a weapon,” and will be used to “protect people and save lives,” reports the New York Times.
However, not long after the program launched, the dogs were used in a home invasion response, and later appeared at a public housing community, which ignited scrutiny of how exactly the department chooses to deal with poorer communities.
A few months later, after fierce backlash from critics referring to the Digidogs as “dystopian” and emblematic of the militarization of police, NYPD quietly ended the program.
One city council member went as far as saying the Digidogs resemble the robotic dogs from the 2017 “Metalhead” episode of the Netflix series “Black Mirror.”
John Miller, New York Police Department’s deputy commissioner, told NYT that the death of their Digidog program was due to “politics, bad information and cheap sound bytes,” adding that NYPD should’ve named it “Lassie.”
But the use of terrifying robodogs by police departments isn’t the only controversy surrounding Boston Dynamics.
According to The Daily Beast, the company’s founder, former CEO, and current chairman, Marc Raibert served on the advisory board for the $500 billion futuristic city project “Neom.” The project was funded by the Saudi crown prince Mohammed Bin Salman, who notably, among many atrocities, had Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi dismembered by a hack saw in 2018.
A spokesperson for Boston Dynamics told the publication that Railbert is now longer actively working with the Saudi Arabian despot.