This week, during a hearing that was abbreviated so that city employees could attend the funerals for three Baltimore firefighters, the Board of Estimates quickly approved a little over $31,000 for a durable and lightweight kind of surveillance technology called “a throwbot.” The $31,290 in city funds will go to ReconRobotics Inc. There was no need to look for another vendor because, as the BOE agenda notes, ReconRobotics Inc. “is the sole manufacturer and distributor of these devices.”

Indeed, throwbots seem to be one of a kind. The small rolling device—it looks like two wheels on an axel—is able to capture video and audio and broadcast it back to a small hand-held device in real-time; the device can also be thrown and withstand the force of impact, including 30-foot falls. This makes the technology, which is battery operated and weighs a little over a pound, useful for police who can send it into someone’s home, for example, and surveill the location, or to inspect a “suspect” close-up without putting the police in as much risk. Additionally, the throwbot uses infrared technology, letting law enforcement see in the dark. Primarily, throwbots have been used by police for situations involving SWAT.

Like so many of the toys American police departments get to play with, throwbots were developed as military technology and have slowly trickled down into police departments nationwide. After it was used in Afghanistan and Iraq in the 2000s, this technology spread to police departments starting in 2011 after ReconRobotics applied to the FCC for a spectrum use waiver, allowing the technology to transmit its live video feed. The technology, like so much military-to-police tech, was introduced along with plenty of advocacy by police and fawning news coverage in many of the towns that purchased throwbots.

Like so many of the toys American police departments get to play with, throwbots were developed as military technology and have slowly trickled down into police departments nationwide.

Last year, Baltimore Police killed one man and shot another during the kind of potential barricade or hostage situation ReconRobotics says their technology can help to end more swiftly—and, they say, “peacefully”—than kicking in a door or throwing flashbang grenades into a home. It is not clear how a citizen enduring a behavioral crisis would know that a “throwbot” tossed through a window or down a hallway is different from a flashbang or any other police weapon.

On Aug. 9, 2021, Marcus Martin, 40 years old, was shot and killed by Baltimore Police Officer Jeffery Archambault of SWAT. Police had been called to the scene because of an assault reported by someone in the home. When police arrived, others in the home were able to leave, and Martin was left alone with a shotgun, surrounded by police officers. 

The use of a large, roving police robot escalated the situation between cops and Martin, who, family members said, had lost his job days earlier. Body-worn camera footage of the shooting shows cops discussing bringing the “robot” out and worrying that Martin, who had a shotgun, might shoot at the robot. And that’s exactly what happened: Martin fired at the robot, which was at the front door of his home. That meant Martin was essentially firing at police. No officers were shot by Martin, but soon after Martin shot the robot, Archambault sniped and killed him.

Because the situation began as a call over an assault, it was not diverted to mental health professionals who work for the city. BPD’s Crisis Response Team, trained to better handle behavioral crises like the one Martin was experiencing, were not available because they operate between 11:00AM and 7:00PM. 

(In another incident that occurred on Christmas Day last year, 50-year-old Barron Coe was shot and injured by police. Police were called to Coe’s house because of a disturbance. As police on the scene spoke to him, Coe suggested he may have had explosives in the home, said he was armed, and warned of “a major situation.” He told them to get back-up. Then, police said, not long after, Coe had a gun in his waistband and raised it, at which point he was shot by police. For a week after the shooting, police maintained the story that Coe had fired at them, but on Jan. 3 they finally admitted that Coe did not fire his weapon at all. In fact, Coe’s gun had no firing pin and could not fire. BDP’s Crisis Response Team was also not present during Coe’s shooting.)

As Battleground Baltimore has reported, police spending as of late has included $18 million for new police helicopters; $100,000 in ​​additional funding to Metro Crime Stoppers; $759,500 to continue a contract with AI-based audio surveillance tech ShotSpotter; and $6.5 million in red light camera revenue to help BPD balance its budget.

Credit to @ScanthePolice, the local Twitter account dedicated to police transparency, for calling attention to throwbots and for running down the rest of this week’s proposed police spending.

Partial credit for making it easier to get a sense of city spending must also be given to Baltimore City Comptroller Bill Henry. Since he was elected to the comptroller position last year, Henry has been active in calling attention to each week’s agenda and sometimes live-tweeting the BOE meeting. In emails sent out by his communication team, Henry often highlights some of the notable (and egregious) expenditures. 

During this week’s BOE meeting where the throwbots were approved, Henry also announced that there is a bid opening up later this month for SWAT tactical vests.

Brandon Soderberg

Brandon Soderberg is a Baltimore-based writer reporting on guns, drugs, and police corruption. He is the coauthor of I Got a Monster: The Rise and Fall of America’s Most Corrupt Police Squad. Formerly, he was the editor-in-chief of the Baltimore City Paper. His work has appeared in The Intercept, VICE, The Appeal, and many other publications. Follow him on Twitter @notrivia.