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Escondido police to receive robot under federal grant program

ESCONDIDO — A robot police officer may soon join the ranks of the Escondido Police Department following a March 20 vote at an Escondido City Council meeting.

The remote-controlled robot — capable of using lethal force — will be funded by an $8,550 grant given under the Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI), a federal grant program administered by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Escondido Police Chief Craig Carter, who spoke before the City Council, said the robot could benefit the department and would be designated for uniquely dangerous circumstances.

“That robot will be used to enter into locations that are otherwise not safe for law enforcement to entire, with the goal of establishing a communication between the officers and the person that’s inside,” Carter said. “The idea of that is we go in with the robot, we establish that communication and it keeps us from having to go into a situation where it might be a life or death situation.”

In response to Carter’s presentation, Deputy Mayor Consuelo Martinez reminded the police department to provide more documentation and explanatory materials when presenting budgetary items before the council.

Before it was removed, the robot officer funding had been placed on the Consent Calendar among 13 items originally slated for a council vote without discussion.

“The reason I pulled this item is because the staff report that I received said ‘training for fire and police’ and it said ‘regional law enforcement equipment.’ But it gave no details as to what kind of training that was going to be or what kind of equipment that was going to be,” Martinez said. “So, in the future, any similar type of requests I would ask for details about what you’re thinking of purchasing with that money, what it will be used for and just more details because I only got the lump sum.”

Martinez also cited civil liberty concerns and said she would like details addressing these things in the next round of discussion.

Criticism of the UASI program is exemplified in a 2012 report — the byproduct of a yearlong probe — published by the office of then-U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma) and titled “Safety at Any Price: Assessing the Impact of Homeland Security Spending in U.S. Cities.”

“Congress and DHS failed to establish metrics to measure how funds spent through the UASI program have made us safer or determine the right amount to dedicate to counterterrorism programs to mitigate the threat,” Coburn wrote in that report’s prelude. “If in the days after 9/11 lawmakers were able to cast their gaze forward ten years, I imagine they would be surprised to see how a counter-terrorism initiative aimed at protecting our largest cities has transformed into another parochial grant program.”

Once limited to science fiction movies and novels, police robots have become more mainstream in recent years. Indeed, in 2016, the Dallas Police Department utilized a robot equipped with a bomb to kill a sniper — the first such occurrence in policing history.

The civil liberties concerns expressed by Martinez were previously conveyed by the American Civil Liberties Union.

“It is easy to think up scenarios where weaponized robots might save the day, but such scenarios are likely to be rare — and meanwhile the potential for abuse and overuse is so significant that policymakers should closely monitor police departments’ acquisition of and involvement with such machine,” wrote the ACLU. “Even though the use of lethal remote force can be constitutionally permissible, a wholehearted embrace of such devices by law enforcement would be dangerous.”

This is not the first time the Escondido law enforcement has received grant money via UASI.

Escondido Police Department has received a total of $681,026 in UASI grant funding in the last three years.

Escondido Police Department came under fire after using $246,000 of UASI grant money to buy a military-style armored vehicle, according to an article in The San Diego Union-Tribune.

Escondido Police Department public information officer Chris Lick, citing the ongoing investigation over the attempted arson of a mosque in the city, could not provide The Coast News with the UASI grant application materials by press time.