In a flashy press conference in Times Square this past Tuesday, Mayor Eric Adams and NYPD top brass presented the department’s newest acquisitions: a so-called Digidog, a dog-like remote-controlled robot manufactured by Boston Dynamics; a program called StarChase, which allows cops to fire GPS trackers from a gun-like device; and conical surveillance devices known as autonomous security robots. The move prompted immediate, heavy backlash from civil libertarians, policymakers, and various advocates, an onslaught that Adams himself seems to relish.
To some extent, the disconcertion over the robots and the GPS guns isn’t about this specific buy. The NYPD is ultimately purchasing only two dystop— excuse me, Digidogs, and they’re not going to be out patrolling streets or subway stations, at least under the NYPD’s own current rules. The point is that, after immense public blowback, the mayor has doubled down — an initial pilot for the dog was scrapped two years ago after intense public backlash — on what is a clearly misusable technology, one which, like all of its powerful tools, the agency is empowered to self-regulate.
Even body-worn cameras, hailed as a milestone for police accountability, have become another front in the wrangling over the department’s resistance to oversight and controls with its refusal to actually turn the footage over and accusations of selective release and editing to paint itself in the best light.
In remarks Tuesday at the demonstration of the new tools, NYPD Chief of Department Jeffrey Maddrey made an offhand comment about one particular application of the dogs in a broader point about their utility: “We believe that this Digidog will help save lives, increase public safety, people who are suspects in crime, people suffering from mental health crisis, it will help them and help us provide better service” (emphasis mine).
That little clause there, said in passing as one of the bright yellow dogs strutted around in front of the cameras, really lodged in my mind. Help people suffering from mental health crises? How? Let’s extrapolate from that scenario a little bit. Let’s say someone is in the middle of an episode of what the emergency services call emotional disturbance. It’s an altered state, often a paranoid one, which is why advocates have long called on the responders not to be cops, trained primarily in use of force and whose presence alone might be an accelerant, but mental health practitioners who are specifically skilled in managing mental health conditions and de-escalating situations.
Now, instead of just cops, the NYPD’s top uniformed commander has suggested that people in the midst of a mental health breakdown may find themselves facing cops and the robot dog from Black Mirror. Is that going to help? Is it going to be conducive to “help them and help us provide better service”? I’m skeptical. What Maddrey really meant is it will further remove cops from personal danger, which is often a principle that seems to take precedence over the police’s duty to assist and safeguard the public.
Let’s take last month’s NYPD shooting of Raul de la Cruz. The 42-year-old Bronxite’s father called 311 after an argument where his son, who had a history of mental health issues, began behaving erratically. The call was routed to 911 and police officers came to the building’s entrance, at which point de la Cruz became agitated and walked in their direction with a kitchen knife. Police shot him less than 30 seconds after their arrival, leaving him in critical condition and prompting calls for accountability for the officers. Now let’s imagine that same scenario, but metal fido was present. Does this all end better? Is the dog better able to deescalate the situation? Perhaps the extra buffer would have prevented the cops from shooting the man, but that seems like the wrong solution to the problem, instead of approaching him with his own safety and not the cops’ as the primary objective.
Perhaps I’m reading too much into this. It was a cursory comment in the middle of an introductory press conference, and who knows what the cops will eventually use the dog for. But that’s exactly the point; we’re left to guesswork, because the people who make these rules and policies are the NYPD themselves. Are the robots going to be drafted into Adams’ campaigns of encampment, park, and subway sweeps? What exactly is the criteria for deploying the GPS gun? Will it be used against only getaway cars or those that don’t have license plates, or are the police going to be able to fire GPS trackers into passing vehicles based on hunches or whatever the new “smell of marijuana” catch-all probable cause declaration is?
Let’s also not forget that this is coming on the heels of the city’s new agreement with the Police Benevolent Association, which will add a head-turning $5.5 billion in city spending by the end of fiscal year 2027, including via raises that are puzzlingly retroactive to six years, a stunning concession that is almost unheard of in labor negotiations. As we wrote in the Daily News editorial page, the deal comes as budget director Jacques Jiha, at the direction of Adams, is pushing agencies throughout the city to find even more cuts, at long last dropping the pretense that this could be done without any potential impact to city services.
If the deal goes through — and it almost certainly will — then it will be common for five-year patrol cops — not officers, not management — to be earning in excess of $200,000 a year between base salary and overtime, without even getting into the benefits. Frank Digiacomo, commander of the NYPD’s specialized TARU unit, amusingly parried questions about the dogs’ cost by saying that they were purchased with forfeiture money, which is another way of saying that they were bought with money that has often been seized unfairly and with little recourse from New Yorkers themselves.
In tandem, the spending on the personnel and the emphasis on technology are as clear a sign as any that Adams views the police as the premier and fundamental city entity, and trusts them to be the primary driver of both his agenda and the provision of city services. Is that a good bet for the department that almost always manages to avoid any accountability for misconduct? Maybe not, but it’s undeniable that this was a big part of the platform that put Adams in City Hall.