[Ed. Note: The following is an excerpt of a larger, upcoming story on the militarization of the Maui PD that will appear in this Thursday’s edition of MauiTime.]
Imagine a robot that can maneuver through a building, climbing stairs and opening doors. Imagine that it can re cord 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 see video of the robot 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 what the department will use the robot for, is 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.
Read the rest of the story in this Thursday’s issue of MauiTime.
Photo of Avatar II: Wikimedia Commons