As dawn broke Wednesday morning, the picture emerging from the scene at Melrose and Western was a harrowing one: police vehicles surrounding a Metro bus and reports that a man with a gun had barricaded himself inside of it.
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According to LAPD, police had initially been called to the scene around 3:50 a.m., after a passenger spotted a gun in a bag under the man’s seat and alerted the bus driver. Per ABC7, the driver had then pulled the bus over, let the other passengers off, disabled the bus, and waited for police to arrive.
Once the man was in custody, however, it became clear the story was (thankfully) not quite what it seemed.
There had been no barricade. As reported in the L.A. Times, the man had slept through the entire three-hour “standoff” – including the arrival of SWAT and the deployment of both a drone and a robot dog. Once awake, per images broadcast from the scene, he mostly seemed confused and/or annoyed about being hassled. But he was also compliant and was soon taken into custody.
Most notably, as both Streetsblog and L.A. TACO confirmed with LAPD Wednesday afternoon, the weapon recovered at the scene was not a semi-automatic handgun, as LAPD had initially claimed. It was a BB gun.
These details (or lack thereof) did not keep gadget fever from gripping the morning airwaves yesterday.
Local headlines focused on how effective LAPD’s $280,000 robot dog was said to have been in bringing the “standoff” with the “barricaded” and “armed man” to a peaceful resolution. But none of the reports offered any insights into how the quadruped had actually accomplished such a feat. Had it identified the type and location of the alleged weapon? Had it given officers a clearer picture of the man’s status? Had it opened a line of communication with him? Or had it just startled him out of his slumber at the tail end of the “standoff,” as appears to have been the case? No one had any answers and there didn’t seem to be a lot of effort put into pursuing them.
ABC7’s Scott Reiff mused the robot might have grabbed the gun from the man while KCAL/CBS spent the majority of their breaking news segment gushing over how “pretty incredible” it was that this “very unique,” “remarkable piece of technology,” “very specialized piece of equipment,” and “high-tech tool had been called in to help!”
A mid-morning segment from KTLA (below) was also short on specifics but long on robot dog platitudes, hyping up images of the device “in full action” and repeating LAPD’s claim that “the use of this technology really helped resolve this situation without putting any officers or community members in harm’s way.”
If these outlets were concerned about how heavily they were taking their cues from the department’s unsubstantiated claims, they made no mention of it.
Had they wished to do so, LAPD’s reasons for leading with gadget triumphalism – rather than, say, clarifications about the kind of gun the man was carrying, the one-sided nature of the “standoff,” or why the robot dog was not deployed until the last minute – would have been easy enough to parse.
City Council only voted to accept the donation of the costly robot dog this past May, after months of delay. The L.A. Police Foundation had initially intended it for the Metro Division, but heated debates about the potential for the device to be abused (e.g. to surveil overpoliced communities of color even more intensely) ultimately derailed that plan. LAPD then pegged it to SWAT, limited the scenarios it could be deployed to (e.g. active shooters, assessment of explosives, hostage situations, natural disasters, hazardous material assessments, search and rescue missions, and barricaded suspects), and declared it would not be equipped with any weapon systems or facial recognition technology. The compromise ensured LAPD was able to garner the necessary eight votes in council. But changing wider public opinion has proven more difficult.
Wednesday’s “standoff” handed LAPD its second opportunity to make its case to the public regarding both the robot’s value and the department’s commitment to the parameters it set forth. And getting positive press about a reliable quadruped couldn’t hurt, given the recent misdeeds of some of the department’s bipeds.
But mostly, by getting the robot dog to commandeer the headlines, LAPD ensured that by the time it became clear it had taken them three hours to deescalate a sleeping man with a BB gun, the news cycle had already moved on.
Streetsblog sent a number of questions to LAPD regarding the “standoff” yesterday, including any charges the man would be facing; LAPD declined to answer all but the most basic details and said the case was now in the hands of detectives.