The week of January 10, 2016

Why RoboCop is not the cyborg lawman we need

By Noah Berlatsky

“We need a 24-hour-a-day police officer,” declares malevolent corporate schemer Dick Jones (Ronny Cox) in the 1987 film RoboCop. “A cop who doesn’t need to eat or sleep. A cop with superior firepower and the reflexes to use it.” He unveils a giant robot police unit called ED-209. ED’s first act is to use its hand-mounted machine gun to shoot an innocent man to death in a spectacular and bloody orgy of violence—the new and improved police officer metes out new and improved police brutality.

RoboCop‘s sort-of-satiric, sort-of-utopian dream of using technology to build a better policeman is in part about enhanced, overwhelming force. But it’s also a fantasy about surveillance and improved control. ED doesn’t respond to commands the way it’s supposed to; it needs better training. So Omni Consumer Products (OCP) creates a cyborg, the titular RoboCop, as a more stable, more accountable super law enforcer. 

Built from the remaining bits of murdered officer Alex Murphy (Peter Weller), RoboCop is made of impervious metal and has a targeting computer for deadly accuracy. He is more deadly—but he’s also trackable. His corporate controllers know where he is at all times, and he has built-in commands that prevent him from mistakenly gunning down the wrong person. “Serve the public trust. Protect the innocent. Uphold the law.” These prime directives are literally inscribed on his brain. RoboCop promises that science will provide us not just with bigger guns, but with more complete obedience. The new, technologically enhanced police officer will be both more violent and more dependably controllable than his obsolete predecessors.

RoboCop has turned out to be remarkably prescient. Police departments in the U.S. have, like ED-209, grown bloated with military firepower. Departments have access to armored trucks, M-16 rifles, grenade launchers, machine guns, silencers, even aircraft. Critics have pointed to this increasing militarization as a serious and overlooked problem: Almost by its very nature, military technology makes police more deadly.

Body cameras, it is hoped, will turn police into visible cyborgs, whose use of force can be monitored, controlled, and made to serve the public trust.

But following the Ferguson protests and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, technology has also been embraced as a way to make police more pacific and accountable. Body cameras, it is hoped, will turn police into visible cyborgs whose use of force can be monitored, controlled, and made to serve the public trust.

If police know they are being recorded, proponents argue, they will be more circumspect and careful when dealing with citizens and arrests. At the least, perhaps body cameras can be used to hold officers accountable when they act recklessly or irresponsibly. In Chicago, police claimed that teenager Laquan McDonald was threatening Officer Jason Van Dyke when Van Dyke shot him in October 2014. Without dashcam video of McDonald walking away when Van Dyke opened fire, the officer, who has been indicted, would probably not have been charged.

A much-cited 2012 study of body cameras found that they reduced use of force by 59 percent and reduced complaints against officers by 87 percent. Such research has helped inspire a boom in the purchase and use of body cameras. Taser International, the main producer of body cameras, has had a 154 percent increase in sales over the last year. Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential front-runner, has called for body cameras to be mandatory for officers nationwide.

But there’s also been some skepticism about the potential of police/body camera cyborgs. Researcher Michael D. White conducted a review for the Office of Justice Programs Diagnostic Center at the Department of Justice and concluded that, “[g]iven the lack of research, there is little evidence to support or refute many of the claims” for the efficacy of body cameras. The report notes that body cameras do seem to cause a drop in citizen complaints, and perhaps a drop in use of force. But it isn’t clear whether that is caused by changed citizen behavior, changed police behavior, or some combination of both. It might also just be because citizens are filing fewer frivolous complaints.

It isn’t clear that body cameras changed citizen behavior, changed police behavior, or some combination of both.

Louis Hayes, a police trainer with the Virtus Group, based in Chicago, doubts that body cameras have much potential for reducing use of force. “When squad car dash-mounted cameras gained popularity in the late 1990s, they had little impact on how officers handled traffic investigations,” he said via email. “Most officers continued with business as usual, with little regard for if they were on camera or not. To expect a change in police behavior with body-worn cameras is to ignore the nonexistent impact of dashcams 15 years ago.” 

Hayes added that body cameras raise serious privacy concerns. “Police officers become privileged to highly sensitive information during contacts with citizens,” he said. Body cameras make that information harder to control, and in some instances threaten to make it public.

The fear that videos will get out when they shouldn’t is balanced by the worry that videos that should be made public won’t be. The Laquan McDonald video was kept under wraps for more than a year and was only released after a long struggle with the courts. Brian Dolinar, an Illinois activist and writer who works with Champaign-Urbana Citizens for Peace and Justice, told the Kernel that “when it comes down to police videotaping themselves, how does the public get access to the video? In the past when we’ve had brutality cases, to get dashcam footage of the incident, we’ve had to go through all kinds of things to get the video to the public.” It’s always a struggle, he says, to get video of police misconduct released. “The body cameras create the illusion of transparency,” he noted, but if the police don’t turn the cameras on, or if you can’t get access to the tape, there isn’t any real way to hold officers accountable.

“To expect a change in police behavior with body-worn cameras is to ignore the nonexistent impact of dashcams 15 years ago.”

Perhaps the biggest problem with body cameras, though, is conceptual. Whether you’re outfitting your cyborg with guns or outfitting your cyborg with cameras, you’re still engaged in the goal of building a better cyborg. “We oppose reforms that give additional resources to police departments in general,” the Chicago-based organization We Charge Genocide writes. Giving more hardware to RoboCop is not necessarily a good way to restrain RoboCop.

That’s perhaps the lesson of RoboCop 2. The original RoboCop was directed by Paul Verhoeven, a lefty who likes poking fun at fascism. The sequel, though, was written by right-wing, pro-cop, law-and-order cheerleader Frank Miller, and it’s much more sincere in its law enforcement worship.

RoboCop 2 gives RoboCop a liberal namby-pamby reprogramming. Omni Consumer Products goes to the public to ask them what they’d like in a police officer. The mollycoddling liberal community leaders respond that they’d prefer it if RoboCop “talked things out with people instead of firing that gun.” “He could speak out on environmental issues,” they say. “Or help a cat out of a tree.”

OCP takes the list of demands and suggestions and uploads it into RoboCop’s brain. He is transformed into a cheerful public servant who exclaims “You betcha!” and reads a corpse his Miranda rights, but has too much sunshine up his butt to do the dirty work of killing bad guys and protecting the public. Murphy (aka RoboCop) has to go grab an electrical box and wipe his own memory to get rid of the leftist bleeding-heart hogwash. Once he reboots, he once again becomes a killing machine, unfettered by extraneous commands and able to torture bad guys for information the way a good cop should.

When you have a system designed for war and violence, it’s going to unleash war and violence, one way or the other. RoboCop will act like RoboCop.

For RoboCop 2, restraining cops is a bad idea that lets the bad guys win. But you could also see the film as a perhaps inadvertent parable about the futility of putting limits on your cyborg. Add body cameras or additional nice-nice commands to the armored battlebot all you like. Said battlebot will just erase them at the first opportunity. When you have a system designed for war and violence, it’s going to unleash war and violence, one way or the other. RoboCop will act like RoboCop. If you want a different outcome, you need to build a different machine.

How you go about building that different machine is another question. “The real goal here is better decision-making by police officers. This is done through better training,” says Louis Hayes. But better training will have only a limited effect as long as society as a whole wants their ED-209s.

RoboCop‘s future vision is in part dystopic and in part critical. But it’s also gleeful. It’s fun to watch RoboCop kill evil perpetrator after evil perpetrator. It’s fun to imagine a nightmare Detroit in which cops pull guns on evil preteen Little League superpredators. Righteous cops cleaning up urban scum: that’s an entertaining story. And it only gets more entertaining when you add technological toys, whether those toys are rocket launchers or body cameras.

“It’s a pleasure to introduce you to the future of law enforcement,” Dick Jones declares as he introduces ED-209. That law enforcement future is basically the same as law enforcement past, with just a bit more hardware. No matter how you program the cyborg, it’s still going to be a cyborg. RoboCop—and its 2014 remake—is a reminder that it’s a lot easier to create a man made out of metal than it is to imagine a different world, soldered not out of titanium plates, but from justice and peace.

Illustration by J. Longo