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Could Robocops Be the Answer to Saving Black Lives?

by T.J. Bates
July 20, 2016 | Our Future


It is, perhaps, the most visceral and irrational of human emotions.

It is the very emotion parents and mentors tell us to overcome in the pursuit of our dreams. It is also the emotion presidents and world leaders implore us not to succumb to in the wake of a mass shooting or terrorist attack.

Biologically, fear exists for a reason: self-preservation. To keep yourself, and your loved ones, safe, sound and alive.

Yet, when fear overtakes a police officer with a license to kill and a predilection to shoot first and ask questions later, the situation too often devolves into the loss of a human life.

Especially when that fear is triggered, clouded or heightened by racial bias and prejudice.

Image of a police car with flashing lights from the side - the rear window to the side mirror at an angle. An officer is blurred in the backgorund.

A few years ago, during a CNN panel discussion, actor LeVar Burton—of "Reading Rainbow" and "Star Trek" fame—described his personal protocol when he is pulled over by a traffic cop:

"I take my hat off and my sunglasses off, I put them on the passenger's side. I roll down my window, I take my hands, I stick them outside the window and on the door on the driver's side because I want that officer to be as relaxed as he can be when he approaches my vehicle. And I do that because I live in America."

How depressing is it that, in this country, in this day and age, the beloved host of a children's television show feels he must go out of his way to appear as non-threatening as possible to a police officer during a traffic stop? A police officer, mind you, who is publicly paid to serve and protect.

For more than 20 years, LeVar Burton helped teach kids reading skills, habits and attitudes as the host of “Reading Rainbow.”

Unfortunately, Burton is not alone.

U.S. Senator Tim Scott (R-SC), comedian Chris Rock, Oscar-winning musician John Legend, journalists Bryant Gumbel and Don Lemon and many other male, African-American celebrities and non-celebrities, like Brian Crooks, have spoken or written about their very real fear of being beaten or killed by a traffic cop, with no way to legally defend themselves.

This is a fear that exists in many African American males nationwide, regardless of their zip code or socioeconomic status. A fear, mind you, that exists in an ethno-gender group comprising just 6 percent of the U.S. population.

Consider, then, how robotic technology and mobile app capabilities could be used to lessen an African American male's—let's say Burton's—fear of being killed during a traffic stop…

When Burton is pulled over, a notification window appears on his smartphone or on the navigation screen of his smart car. It displays the traffic officer's name, photo and communal rating and reviews (submitted by verified drivers who have been stopped by the officer in the past).

Based on this information, Burton can tap one of two buttons: Officer-Interaction Requested; or Drone-Interaction Requested.

Perhaps the human officer has a 3 out of 5 star rating, so Burton selects Drone-Interaction Requested, just to be on the safe side.

Moments later, a semi-autonomous drone approaches the driver's side window. As it does so, Burton removes his hat and sunglasses—not out of fear, but rather, so Officer Drone can scan his face.

During the scan, the drone not only confirms Burton's identity, but also takes into account his Boy Scout police record and driving history over the past seven years.

Then the drone speaks, based on an algorithm of pre-programmed scripts:

Officer Drone: Good afternoon, Mr. Burton. How are you today? Burton: I'm good. How are you? Officer Drone: Well, I have no feelings or emotions, but I am well. Thank you for asking. Burton chuckles. Officer Drone: You have been stopped today for driving 11 miles over the speed limit, which is in violation of California vehicle code 22348. Your fine is $230. Would you like to pay the fine now or receive a citation via email or text message…?

robocop black lives

Every year, approximately 26 million U.S. residents are pulled over by a traffic cop. In fact, a traffic stop is when most of us have any interaction with a police officer in an official capacity.

All of these traffic stops, however, are not created equal.

A recent Bureau of Justice Statistics study found African American drivers are stopped lower than the national average for life-endangering offenses like speeding and driving under the influence.

Yet, they are stopped higher than average for discretionary reasons like vehicle defects, record checks and no reason given at all.

And their vehicles are searched nearly three times more often than their Caucasian American counterparts—even though contraband is found at a greater rate amongst Caucasian American drivers nationwide.

So it should come as no surprise the study also found African American drivers are far less likely to believe they were stopped, or their vehicles were searched, legitimately.

The same is true for Hispanic American drivers as well.

According to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, six police officers were shot and killed while conducting a traffic stop in the U.S. last year.

I spoke with a retired Los Angeles County Sheriff's deputy who worked the traffic beat for nearly a decade and she shared with me, on condition of anonymity, that she was always on alert when approaching a vehicle during a traffic stop:

"When a civilian has a police officer walking up to a car, they know they're armed; but the police officer does not know what is in that car."

Yet, this fear of the unknown does not exist on just one side of the driver's side door.

From the driver's perspective, especially if he is African American, a zero-sum game hangs in the balance as a police officer, armed and licensed to kill, approaches his car.

He does not know whether the officer is going to be polite, respectful and above-board…

Or aggressive, condescending, prejudiced or, worse yet, quick to pull the trigger.

robocop police black lives

Two weeks ago, the world watched live and in horror on Facebook as a 32-year-old man lay slumped in the driver's seat of his Oldsmobile Aurora bleeding to death; his fiancé in shock beside him; her 4-year-old daughter sitting behind him, forever traumatized.

The man, Philando Castile, had been driving home from a family outing to the grocery store when two police officers pulled him over in the middle-class suburb of Falcon Heights, Minn., where African Americans are only 3 percent of the population.

There is much we do not yet know about what transpired before one of those officers fired multiple bullets, at close range, into a car with a toddler in the backseat.

What we do know is Castile was fatally shot the moment that police officer feared for his own life… allegedly upon learning or seeing there was a gun in the car, even though Minnesota is an open-carry state.

And it saddens me to write that, in the moments afterwards, neither the offending officer nor his partner made any effort to apply pressure to the scarlet wound in Castile's arm—an action that might have saved his life.

Instead, about 30 minutes after he was pulled over, Philando Castile was dead.

That tragic night in Falcon Heights, however, was not the first time Castile was pulled over by a traffic cop.

Not by a long shot.

The Associated Press uncovered that, in his 14 years of driving as an African American male in and around the Twin Cities, Castile was pulled over at least 52 times and hit with a whopping 86 citations.

More than half of these citations, however, were later dismissed.

Which begs the question, were more than half of these traffic stops even valid to begin with? Or were they biased fishing expeditions?

On July 6, 2016, a little after 9 p.m., Castile was pulled over a final time, not because of a traffic infraction, but, as one of the officers radioed into dispatch, simply because Castile had a "wide-set nose," allegedly like a suspect involved in an armed robbery days prior.

Yes, you read that correctly, a wide-set nose—a trait millions of African American males share—was the only justification needed to pull a man over in…

The city of Falcon Heights, where its contractual police department, the St. Anthony Police Department, refused to provide any data for a 2003 statewide racial profiling study commissioned by the Minnesota Legislature; and does not equip its officers with body cameras.

The Twin Cities suburbs, where African Americans are 310 percent more likely to get pulled over by a traffic officer and 108 percent more likely to be subjected to a discretionary search for contraband—even though contraband is found at a much higher rate amongst Caucasian American drivers statewide.

And the state of Minnesota, where African Americans are less than 6 percent of the population yet comprise nearly 37 percent of the prison population—a prison population, mind you, that has nearly doubled since 2000.

Now consider how robotic technology could have saved the life of a young man just 10 days shy of his thirty-third birthday…

If the police officer truly suspected Castile might be a potential armed robbery suspect (even though Castile had nothing nefarious on his police record; only traffic citations), he could have deployed Officer Drone to follow and scan the car for intel.

Yet, to deploy the drone, he would have had to log a valid reason—in accordance with Minnesota and federal law—for the reconnaissance. Simply entering, "because he has a wide-set nose," would be flagged by Officer Drone's programming as racial profiling and a No-Go for tailing or pulling over Castile and his family.

You have probably noticed that both of my robo-hypotheticals involve the use of an unarmed and semi-autonomous drone rather than a walking, talking, gun-toting, totally awesome robot.

That is partly because:

"Robots are pretty stupid at present," says Daniel Lee, director of the GRASP (General Robotics Automation, Sensing, Perception) Lab at University of Pennsylvania.

Stupid as in, they are not quite past the toddler phase when it comes to walking and thinking like a human.

"Flying robots can carry cameras, but the problem is, the machines themselves don't really understand what they're seeing. Humans are much better at understanding this is an apple tree or cherry tree; or that's a red car that's going to turn left; or figuring out if there is a potential threat."

Image of robot toy

On the other hand, robots and machines are much better than humans when it comes to processing lots and lots of data. And they can be programmed to be more objective and unbiased.

When I asked Lee how far away we are from having autonomous robots that can navigate the human world just fine and dandy, he replied:

"It's hard to predict. It could be in 20 years, 50 years or never."

In the 1987 film, "RoboCop," scientists Frankenstein the mind of a man onto the body of a robot—to merge human empathy and good judgment with robotic strength and computing skills.

Fast-forward 30 years and it seems we are on the cusp of having robocops of our own, IRL. Yet, instead of being a human-machine hybrid, perhaps our robocops will be more like Turner and Hooch

Except Hooch is a semi-autonomous drone that is super smart, in many ways, and does not have to stop for bathroom breaks.

"It's an interesting way to think about the use of drones in law enforcement," says Peter Asaro, a media studies professor at The New School who studies the social, legal and ethical implications of militarized robots and drones.

"That they can be used to scan for weapons and threats; to record traffic stops from a better angle than body cams; and to help mediate between a person and a police officer, so neither of us are physically threatened by each other."

Asaro, however, cautions against weaponizing these dronecops and robocops.

Not just because doing so would cause them to look ominous and deadly to a citizen walking down the street or getting pulled over in a car…

But also because arming local police departments with such advanced weaponry could be even more detrimental to African Americans and minorities—given the extent to which racial profiling, prejudice and bias perniciously permeate many police forces across the country today.

"There's definitely a different sense of what's an acceptable use of force for minorities," says Asaro.

"Once you start putting military weapons and options in the hands of police, this becomes even more troubling. It reduces the chances police are going to look into other, less forceful ways to resolve a situation."

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