New York City moved a step closer Friday to employing an army of “RoboCops” to patrol its subways alongside flesh and blood police officers.
Mayor Eric Adams and the New York Police Department kicked off a pilot program on Sept. 22 in which the Knightscope K5 autonomous security robot — originally unveiled earlier this year — will patrol the mezzanine of the Times Square 42 Street subway station. The large-wheeled device, equipped with cameras on all sides, will be tested in the central transit hub over the next two months between the hours of midnight and 6 a.m., according to City Hall and the NYPD.
The robot will begin its deployment in the station tonight, according to City Hall. It will map the station for the first two weeks of the pilot and then will begin patrols.
Hizzoner said the K5 will record video that “can be reviewed in the case of an emergency or a crime,” but it won’t employ real-time facial recognition technology. The bot will be accompanied by a police officer with the NYPD’s Technical Assistance Response Unit (TARU) at all times in the station’s mezzanine area, but won’t venture onto the platforms.
The machine also sports a call button that will connect anyone who pushes it to a live person who can answer questions or respond to incident reports.
During a Friday morning news conference in the Times Square station, Adams pitched the machine as yet another means of keeping the city’s subways safe.
“When people feel unsafe to use our trains and buses it impacts our economic stability as well,” Adams said. “We’re taking existing technology, cameras, being able to communicate with people, and placing it on wheels.”
After the pilot ends, and depending on what it reveals, Adams said the K5 could become a far more common sight in the subways.
The mayor also insisted that using technology to supplement the NYPD’s patrol ranks can help the city save on personnel costs associated with deploying cops across the five boroughs. Adams even suggested that the wider deployment of K5 throughout the subways is budgetarily responsible in a time when the city is facing massive looming deficits due to the ongoing migrant crisis, which recently prompted the mayor to threaten 15% cuts across city agencies.
The $9-an-hour rate the city is leasing the bot for is far less than the hourly cost of a human patrol cop, Adams said.
“We only pay for it when it’s being operated, when it’s actually operating. So, this is a hugely cost-effective way, as we deal with challenging budget restraints, we need to find more cost-efficient ways to bring about safety,” the mayor said in response to a question from amNewYork Metro. “This is below minimum wage, no bathroom breaks, no meal breaks, this is a good investment.”
The city, of course, will still have to pay for cops assigned to patrol the station alongside the K5 over the next two months. But the mayor emphasized that police officers will only accompany the robot during the pilot program.
NYPD Transit Chief Michael Kemper, who joined Adams at the press conference, said they are assigning officers to walk alongside the machine to answer the public’s questions about what it is and how it works.
“They’re gonna walk alongside of it, and a lot of it has to do with transparency and questions and curiosity from the public,” Kemper said. “It’s very important that the public knows what this robot is, what its capabilities are. So, that is in large part why we’re assigning a cop to be with it. After the two month pilot, we’ll reassess and see how we move forward.”
Kemper insisted the video K5 records will be subject to the same rules as any other footage recorded by camera systems controlled by the city. He also noted K5 will act as a visual deterrent to anyone looking to break the law in the subway system.
“The rules … connected to any camera system in the city remain the same with K5,” Kemper said. “There’s nothing changing other than, as the mayor mentioned, look at it as a camera system on wheels. It’s mobile. Nothing’s changing.”
The mayor’s embrace of robots for public safety purposes has hardly gone without controversy.
When he announced in late August he was deploying drones to monitor backyard parties around the West Indian Day Parade route in Brooklyn, the move drew immediate backlash from civil liberties groups. They argued it potentially violated rules around police surveillance mandated by the Post Act.
City Council Member Jen Gutiérrez, who chairs the council’s Committee on Technology, wrote on social media she’s “excited to talk about how this could ever be a good use of public funds and if it is compliant with local laws” at a hearing she’s holding on the Post Act on Oct. 11.
In response to the mayor’s Friday announcement, Daniel Schwarz, the New York Civil Liberties Union’s senior privacy and technology strategist, said the fact that the NYPD is launching new technology when the mayor is demanding budget cuts across city government shows a clear disparity between the department and other agencies.
“As other city agencies are asked to slash their budgets, the NYPD is proudly boasting new, unnecessary surveillance tools — sending the message loud and clear that their department isn’t remotely held to the same standards as others,” Schwarz said. “New Yorkers deserve comprehensive oversight, regulation, and transparency surrounding the NYPD’s dystopian deployment of this technology to ensure our intimate, personal data isn’t exploited and that marginalized communities are not harassed, targeted, or abused.”