Imagine a robot that can maneuver through a building, climbing stairs and opening doors. Imagine that it can record what it sees and talk to people. Now imagine that it can hold and use a firearm. If that sounds like science fiction, think again: the Maui Police Department recently took possession of a robot that can do all that.
The “militarization” of our nation’s law enforcement agencies is a big story these days. Earlier this month, people in the small town of Ferguson, Missouri protesting the police shooting of a young African-American man named Michael Brown found themselves facing a phalanx of cops armed and equipped like soldiers in Afghanistan. It’s a trend that’s been building for years, fed by surplus military sales, law enforcement fears of ever-expanding threats and largely compliant public officials who are all too willing to give cops whatever equipment they’re asking for, usually without even discussing in public whether it’s the right fit for police officers tasked with protecting civilian communities. The police, in turn, refuse to make public the policies governing the equipment, raising serious questions about why the cops wanted the stuff in the first place.
The robot the Maui PD recently bought is a prime example of this. Built by Sunnyvale, California-based RoboteX, it’s called the Avatar II. It looks like a small black tank–maybe two feet long, 15 inches across and six inches deep, according a company brochure posted on its website. It weighs 25 pounds without its battery. It can operate 300 yards or so from its base, go four to five hours before draining the battery and climb a 60 degree incline (click here to watch video of the Avatar II in action).
The Avatar has a sensor dome and antenna on top and a number of attachments, including a mechanical arm that can reach up and manipulate door handles. It’s controlled like any remote controlled car. And it can do everything described above, though the MPD says it probably won’t be holding a weapon anytime soon. Indeed, then-Maui Police Chief Gary Yabuta told the Maui County Council’s Budget and Finance Committee a year ago that it wouldn’t do so, though his reason seemed to come straight from an episode of Reno: 911.
“[W]e’re not using it for that purpose,” Yabuta told the panel during its April 16, 2013 hearing, in response to a question from Councilmember Elle Cochran, according to the meeting minutes. “And you know what, I had spoken to a chief and it was with the Reno Police Department where they did apply that, and unfortunately the adversary was able to take that particular weapon away from that particular robot, so they had stopped using that application but it is possible with this robot. It just won’t be used for that purpose.”
While Yabuta isn’t Maui Police Chief anymore (and the Maui Police Commission has yet to announce a successor), Maui Police Spokesman Lt. William Juan recently confirmed to me that the department has taken possession of the robot, which cost the county $17,000, though he added that it hasn’t yet been used in any operations. As for how the department will use the robot, that’s a larger, murkier question.
Because the MPD considers it a “tactical tool,” the department won’t discuss the conditions or even policies that govern its use. And it’s not just with members of the press, either. When Budget and Finance Committee Chairman Don Guzman asked members of the department a seemingly innocuous question about the robot’s dimensions–information publicly available on the manufacturer’s website–Maui PD Deputy Chief Clayton Tom clammed up.
“Chair, Mr. Guzman, as far as for the robot I don’t think we want to get into particulars on that because it is a tactical–” Tom said, according to the minutes.
Guzman quickly agreed. “Oh, it’s used tactical,” he said. “Okay, okay.”
Yabuta and Tom–who may in fact succeed Yabuta–would only talk about the robot in extremely general terms. They never even used its name in public county hearings–I found the name buried in a 2014 budget document and confirmed it with Juan. But when the robot did come up, they always spoke of it in the context of officer safety.
“We’re asking for a tactical robot so if we get into a hot situation or a building where we have a threat, a violent threat, instead of putting a person in that particular environment to search, we can put in a robot and mechanically control that robot to search the facility to make sure it’s safe before we enter that particular building or residence,” Yabuta told the panel, according to the minutes.
Tom agreed. “[A]s far as for the robot, it’s a safety measure; it’s a tool that we can use,” Tom added a few minutes later.
* * *
Like just about every police department in the nation, the Maui PD has been getting a lot of “tools” for their Special Response Teams (SRT) in recent years. It predates the showdown in Ferguson by decades.
“Across the country, heavily armed Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams are forcing their way into people’s homes in the middle of the night, often deploying explosive devices such as flashbang grenades to temporarily blind and deafen residents, simply to serve a search warrant on the suspicion that someone may be in possession of a small amount of drugs,” the ACLU states in its 98-page report War Comes Home: The excessive militarization of American Policing, which was released in June. “Neighborhoods are not war zones, and our police officers should not be treating us like wartime enemies.”
Through the magic of Twitter and Livestream, I was able to watch the violence and heavy-handed police response in Ferguson in real time, but it seemed all too familiar, though that may just have been because S.W.A.T. was one of my favorite TV shows when I was a kid. But even with their blue coveralls, M-16 assault rifles and big-ass van, SWAT teams back in the 1970s and ‘80s were still recognizable as cops.
That changed in 1997, when two bank robbers strapped on body armor and assault rifles and took on the LAPD in the infamous “North Hollywood Shootout.” Incredibly, just the two assailants died, though 18 other people–including 11 cops–were wounded in the violent engagement, which last more than half an hour.
Though Maui had formed its SRT a few years earlier, suddenly it seemed that every department in the U.S. wanted a quick reaction force armed and trained like combat troops. We saw the results in Ferguson–though just a small town of 21,000, their department includes SRT members who wear desert camouflage uniforms (without nametags) and gas masks while pointing machine guns at citizens from atop massive armored trucks.
Much of that equipment sits in Maui PD lockers and stations. Though the department doesn’t like to discuss their “tactical” equipment in public, we can find glimpses of the considerable firepower their own SRT wields these days. For instance, the Maui PD’s 2012 Annual Report (the most recent one available, according to Lt. Juan), includes a photo of three snipers, dressed in Ghillie suits that look more appropriate to Iraq than Maui and toting high-powered, bolt-action rifles. Going over Maui County Budget and Finance Committee minutes for the last few years provides a few more details. For instance, in 2012, Yabuta asked for 60 TASERs, 10 ballistic vests for the SRT, 60 similar vests for the rank and file officers and a “tactical vehicle” (more on that in a moment). Then in 2013, the department requested 15 more TASERs, seven more ballistic vests, 10 M-7 assault rifles (costing $2,000 each) and the Avatar robot.
The April 16, 2013 committee meeting minutes show that Councilman Riki Hokama had some trouble with the M-7 request–not because he opposed giving the department the rifles, but because he didn’t understand what they were. Though Deputy Chief Clayton Tom got confused trying to help him out (he mistakenly called the M-7 a M-6 for some reason), he added some fascinating background on the department’s SRT firepower:
HOKAMA: I’m more interested in the M-7 rifles. Can you give us some comment on that, please? Is it just a shotgun type of rifle as, well, let me ask if that’s what it is.
TOM: The M-6 [sic]. it’s a fully automatic rifle. It shoots the 223 round. It’s the same as the AR-15 round. Like the Chief mentioned earlier, we had weapons from 1990… we started the SRT in 1992. We purchased a whole bunch of automatic weapons in 1993, ‘94 and we had issued a MP5 which shoots a 40 caliber round which is similar to our pistol round and we also had the short M16s…. This is to equip our officers out there in the perimeter and in the entry team so it’s a superior weapon fire which is… it’s what a lot of people out there have.
This is the balance of terror that seems to trap every police department in America. Criminals buy automatic rifles, so the department needs automatic rifles, armored vests and vehicles. Criminals then get armor-piercing rounds and it goes on and on.
“Probably a couple years ago or even a year ago we were registering 150 firearms per month,” Yabuta said at the April 16, 2013 Budget and Finance Committee hearing. “We’re over 900 per month now. And the only reason why we’re not registering more is ‘cause the gun stores are out of guns right now. If you… you can’t even back order a gun right now. The whole country is trying to get a weapon.”
Yabuta’s answer to such an arms race? More arms.
“We want to make sure our people, our tactical people have equipment and weapons that are superior to that being used by our adversary,” Yabuta added. “[W]eapons have changed; they’ve gotten better and we need to keep up with technology ‘cause certainly the adversary has.”
But who exactly the Maui PD’s “adversary” is remains to be seen. Too often, the ACLU reports, that “adversary” ends up being the very citizenry the department is supposed to protect and serve (to borrow the LAPD’s motto).
“Our analysis shows that the militarization of American policing is evident in the training that police officers receive, which encourages them to adopt a ‘warrior’ mentality and think of the people they are supposed to serve as enemies, as well as in the equipment they use, such as battering rams, flashbang grenades, and APCs,” states the ACLU’s War Comes Home report. “This shift in culture has been buoyed by the U.S. Supreme Court’s weakening of the Fourth Amendment (which protects the right to privacy in one’s home) through a series of decisions that have given the police increased authority to force their way into people’s homes, often in drug cases.”
In 2012, Yabuta sold the County Council on the Bearcat by talking up the threat of “active shooters”–gunmen in North Hollywood Shootout type situations.
“[A]ctive shooters is [sic] something that can happen at any moment especially when you register about 250 guns per month and those are just legal guns,” Yabuta said at the April 11, 2012 Budget and Finance Committee hearing. “And it just takes one mentally disturbed person to become an active shooter.”
One of the SRT’s highest profile operations ever came in August 2011, a possible active shooter situation that emerged when an attempted murder suspect barricaded himself in a Kahului home with women and children. The tense standoff went on for 50 hours–the longest in department history, according to The Maui News’ accounts at the time. But it ended peacefully, with the SRT not using deadly force.
Incidents like that, full of fear and uncertainty, are why police departments field Special Response Teams. But they’re also very rare. Since then, a search of Maui News accounts of SRT deployments have shown far less exciting missions:
• May 2012: SRT members “worked on” investigation of a man arrested for allegedly stealing more than 4,000 square feet of seashore grass (not marijuana–we’re talking actual grass here).
• November 2012: SRT “assisted” in the investigation of two armed robberies.
• January 2013: SRT executed a warrant on a Kihei residence, where it found a “clandestine drug lab” and some stolen mopeds.
• March 2013: SRT deployed when a juice bottle containing dry ice exploded in the Wailuku courthouse parking garage.
Dry ice bombs and seashore grass thefts. Never saw a S.W.A.T. episode like that.
* * *
Then there’s that “tactical vehicle” the Maui PD fielded in 2013. It apparently hasn’t been used yet, but it’s seen a lot of publicity around the country lately.
Called the Lenco Bearcat, it’s a popular armored truck for police departments. The Ferguson PD recently used it against that town’s protesters. Built around the Ford F550 chassis, the Bearcat has a turbo diesel engine, four-wheel drive, dual air-conditioning, power anti-lock brakes and an AM-FM stereo CD player, according to publicity materials available at the Lenco website. It’s 20 feet long, eight feet wide, eight feet tall, weighs 18,000 pounds and has a top speed of 90 miles per hour.
Lenco says the Bearcat is “constructed of certified, US-manufactured armor materials.” It has “successfully defeated multi-hit attacks from high powered rifles firing armor piercing ammunition [and] attacks from military type hand grenades as well as improvised explosive devices producing blast fragmentation.”
The county shelled out $280,000 in tax dollars for this beast, but the City of Ferguson got theirs free of charge from the federal government. That’s because they took advantage of the U.S. Government’s 1033 Program, which transfers surplus weapons, vehicles and equipment from the military to law enforcement agencies. Since the program started in 1997–the same year as the North Hollywood Shootout–hundreds of police agencies around the country have taken possession of $4 billion worth of surplus arms and materiel, according to an Aug. 14 Bloomberg Businessweek story.
So how come Maui taxpayers had to shell out nearly three hundred grand for the Bearcat when they might have gotten it free? “The department looked into the DOD program, however, it was not offered to Hawaii at the time,” Lt. Juan, the Maui PD spokesman, told me. “The ‘Bearcat’ was purchased because we wanted a vehicle specified for our police needs.”
As for what those specific “needs” are, Juan wouldn’t say. In fact, he refused to provide MauiTime with a copy of a written policy that governs the use of the Bearcat–a very large, unwieldy vehicle that can cause great damage to people and property.
“The department does not release tactical orders for officers safety reasons,” Juan emailed me on Aug. 21. “The ‘Bearcat’ is a tactical tool which enhances the safety of our officer in tactical situations.”
This lack of transparency is a common attitude among law enforcement concerning their SRT and SWAT teams, says the ACLU. It makes public scrutiny of the department’s militarized units all but impossible.
“Most police departments have in place standards that allow for SWAT deployment in cases involving hostage, barricade, active shooter, or other emergency scenarios, or in ‘high-risk’ warrant scenarios,” states the ACLU’s War Comes Home report. “But what constitutes a ‘high-risk’ scenario depends largely on the subjective beliefs of the officers involved. This lack of clear and legitimate standards for deploying SWAT may result in the excessive and unnecessary use of SWAT deployments in drug cases.”
Like the Avatar, Maui PD officials were loathe to discuss its use and capabilities in public. “We’re asking for a tactical vehicle at 280,000 and again on this particular matter, I’d like to go into closed sessions if there’s questions about this vehicle,” then-Chief Yabuta told the Maui County Budget and Finance Committee on April 11, 2012.
As for why the Maui PD needed an armored truck that he would only discussed in closed session, away from public scrutiny? “[It’s] gonna be lifesaving not only for our officers, but for the public that they have to protect,” Yabuta told the committee, which never objected to his request to keep details of the Bearcat–or the Avatar, for that matter–out of the public record.
Unlike the Avatar–which the Maui PD and county have kept strangely quiet–the Bearcat has enjoyed tons of publicity. County officials circulated colorful photos of the behemoth truck. The Maui News and Maui Now wrote glowing stories about it. But beyond showing it off for the kiddies at a D.A.R.E. rally back in May, the PD doesn’t appear to have deployed the Bearcat in any sort of operation.
* * *
As must be painfully obvious by this point, the Maui PD has all this equipment because the Maui County Council keeps giving it to them. In fact, I even found a time when a councilmember wanted to give the department more military firepower than they actually wanted.
It was at the April 16, 2013 Budget and Finance hearing, not long after Hokama asked what an M-7 rifle was. After Tom explained it to him, Hokama said it didn’t sound like enough. “Why wouldn’t you ask me for one 50 caliber rifle?” he asked Tom, according to the meeting minutes.
Tom said no thanks, adding that a .50 caliber rifle–a huge weapon capable of destroying a vehicle at a range of more than 2,000 yards–“would be overpenetration.”
“[W]hy wouldn’t we consider a penetration power?” the minutes show Hokama asked Tom, not dropping the matter. “You just told us about the robot because of the penetration power of the opposition so why wouldn’t we consider a penetration power? You already made us buy one armored vehicle” (emphasis added).
Still, Tom insisted that a .50 caliber rifle “would be impractical.”
“I’m not talking… I’m think about taking the thing out,” Hokama said, according to the minutes. “I’m not talking about… I’m talking about taking out the problem.”
Then Yabuta jumped in. “Sir, we don’t need a 50 caliber at this time,” he told Hokama. “If there’s a point in our budget where we do we’ll come before the Council. At this time we have sniper rifles that can go equal or even a longer distance than a 50 cal and it’s maneuverable and can be carried from point to point a lot easier than a 50 cal, so at this point in time it’s not advisable for us to have a 50 caliber…”
Which would be reassuring, had Yabuta not added in those little “at this point” and “at this time” caveats. Of course, Yabuta is no longer Maui PD’s chief. His successor may have different ideas about the department’s weapons and tactics.
If people here are serious about making sure what happened–and may yet happen–in Ferguson doesn’t go down here, then the Maui PD needs to start releasing written policies governing the use of military weapons and equipment to the public. It means the federal government needs to stop giving municipal police departments gear meant for battlefields. And, most importantly, it means the Maui County Council needs to ask stronger questions of the department–and not just at budget time–about the MPD’s use of military weapons and tactics. Because as the ACLU noted in its report, militarization of the police is a dangerous trend that will only get worse unless serious changes are made.
“The use of paramilitary weapons and tactics to conduct ordinary law enforcement–especially to wage the failed War on Drugs and most aggressively in communities of color–has no place in contemporary society,” the ACLU concluded in its recent War Comes Home report. “It is not too late to change course–through greater transparency, more oversight, policies that encourage restraint, and limitations on federal incentives, we can foster a policing culture that honors its mission to protect and serve, not to wage war.”
(Disclosure: MauiTime owner Tommy Russo is currently suing the County of Maui over an alleged assault by a Maui police officer.)
Cover artist: Rodney K. Ferguson; Cover design: Darris Hurst; Photo of Avatar II: Wikimedia Commons; Photo of Bearcat: County of Maui