A Robocop on Patrol in New York City Raises Curiosity and Questions

There’s a robot cop in town, and it’s patrolling New York City’s busiest subway station: Times Square. Well, a small part of it, at least.

The robot, known as K5, has a camera on each of its four sides, weighs around 400 pounds, and is a little over 5 feet tall. It has been deployed by the New York City Police Department (NYPD) to help officers patrol the station and record video that can be viewed by law enforcement in case of an emergency or a crime.

It is also equipped with a “help” button that connects directly to the city’s 311 helpline number.

The robot began its two-month trial period on Oct. 9, and has been working from midnight to 6 a.m.

On a recent night, some curious passersby said they were confused about what the robot does, while others wanted to take pictures of, or with, the robot. Scott Neilson, a 30-year-old passenger at Times Square, asked, “What is it going to do to stop crime? How much does it cost? Why do we need it?”

New York Mayor Eric Adams announced the initiative in September, saying that it’s part of a broader effort to keep New Yorkers safe. “Devices like the K5 have the possibility to serve as a deterrent to crime or at least learn best practices while using technology going forward,” Adams said during the announcement.

Speaking about the costs involved, Adams added, “We’re not buying, we’re leasing, (at) $9 an hour. This is below minimum wage. You know, no bathroom breaks, no meal breaks.”

But Shane Ferro, a staff attorney at the Digital Forensics Unit of New York’s Legal Aid Society, wondered about the practicality of the robot.

“Ultimately, my main question is the same question that a lot of people are asking – I don’t understand why this exists, or what problem it solves,” Ferro said. “The Times Square subway station is one of the most surveilled locations on the planet – there are cameras everywhere. To add more cameras? I don’t understand.”

The robot is manufactured by Knightscope, a security tech and robotics company. A closer look at the K5’s record reveals incidents when the robot didn’t perform as expected. In 2016, Knightscope’s K5 model reportedly knocked a 16-month-old in California to the ground and ran over one of his feet. And in 2017, a K5 was reported to have run itself into a water fountain inside an office complex in Washington, D.C.

“They don’t want it going near the stairs, or the tracks,” said Detective Adam Rokos of the NYPD’s Technical Assistance Response Unit, as he kept a watch on the robot while it patrolled a small stretch of the Times Square station on a recent night.

Ferro remarked that the limited mobility is another area of concern.

“Having a robot that can’t climb stairs in a subway station that has so many levels is just not a practical use of resources,” Ferro said.

Asked about what he thought of the robot, Rokos said that he had a mixed response.

“You’ve got to have a cop watching it, so if you’re asking a question to the robot, you could be asking it directly to the cop,” Rokos said with a shrug.

At the end of the two-month trial period, city authorities will assess the robot’s effectiveness and decide whether and how to use it moving forward.

“After the 60 days, if they decide to keep it, I don’t know if they’ll still have a cop watching it,” Rokos said. During the announcement in September, Mayor Adams said that the police officers “accompanying the robot” would only do so during the trial period, adding that “they’re not going to be there permanently.”

In his address, Adams said that the robot “will not record audio.” However, the robot on patrol at Times Square had text printed on it that said “K5 recording audio and video for your safety.”

The mayor also stated that the robot will not use facial recognition technology, something that subway passenger Lorenzo Delacruz, 42, was disappointed to hear.

“It would be nice for the robot to do face recognition, and use it to catch criminals,” Delacruz said.

Delacruz added that if the robot recognized an individual who had been involved in an earlier crime, it would be useful if it could “send alerts to the police.”

Massi Ortiz, a 24 year-old emergency medical technician, disagreed.

“You know they are going to target minorities the most,” she said. “It’s always been how it is in New York for years, in terms of policing.”

There have also been questions about whether such a scheme should even feature on the list of the city administration’s priorities.

“It’s a waste of money,” said Rebecca Violet, a 21 year-old New York resident. “They could use the money for better things.”

“Why is it that we can fund this but not fund things that are more important? It’s like we’re losing sight of what’s important,” Ortiz said.

About the author(s)

Meghnad Bose is an award-winning multimedia journalist with over 8 years of experience across digital and television news platforms.