A Traffic Stop with RobotCop: Block 01


“So today’s the big day huh? First time on the beat. Wow… no offense, but I never thought I’d see the day.”

My voice recognition circuit makes a preliminary identification of the speaker. The most probable match is Officer Giuseppe Vincenzo, at 89.61%. My rear optics engage my facial recognition circuit and the identity is confirmed. I turn around to face the officer. He is correct. Today, Wednesday April 1st, is the day that has been chosen for my initial patrol.

“I am looking forward to it, Officer Vincenzo,” I say. “Everyone I know has been building me up for this.”

Though my statement was intended to be humorous, Officer Vincenzo does not laugh. His face registers a low to moderate level of uncertainty.

“Have I pronounced your name incorrectly, officer?”

“Well… yeah. It’s Vin-chen-zo, or Veen-chen-zo if you wanna get fancy, but you can just call me Vinny. Everybody else does.”

My humor circuit prepares a response. My cultural sensitivity circuit makes the assessment that the response will be highly unlikely to offend Officer Vincenzo. My decision engine proceeds.

“Aaaaay, Vinny,” I say, spreading my arms in an exaggerated gesture. “Fuggeddabout it!”

Officer Vincenzo grins. “Hey RobotCop, you’re a real funny guy. You might just be alright.”

My optics recognize that Vincenzo is wearing a non-regulation badge on the left breast of his patrol uniform. “May I inquire about your badge?” I ask.

“Ahh, you’ve got a keen eye. That’s good. Observation is paramount out there.” He slips his left hand into his pants pocket. “I’m not sure if they, uh, programmed you to know about the significance of April 1st, but uh… well here goes nothing.” There is a motion in Vincenzo’s pocket and a jet of liquid sprays from a nozzle in the center of the badge, striking me in the facial region.

“Oh god, I haven’t been waterproofed yet! I exclaim, while executing a number of jerky, but carefully circumscribed motions. “I was approximately eleven-point-five-six-hours away from becoming a real officer!”

My body language and expression circuits register alarm in the reaction of Officer Vincenzo, and in the reaction of Officer Pamela Kinderson, who suspends her trajectory through the corridor to observe me from approximately 10.20 feet away.

“That thing alright!?” inquires Officer Kinderson, her body language registering alarm.

“Uh… why don’t you ask him?” replies Officer Vincenzo.

Officer Kinderson walks 3.00 steps closer and looks at my facial region. I cease my motions and return to attention, facing her. She looks at Officer Vincenzo, then at me again, then fixes her attention in the direction of her original trajectory.

“Too weird,” she says. She shakes her head and resumes walking.

“Tough crowd,” says Officer Vincenzo.

I turn to face Officer Vincenzo. “I am actually fully functional and undamaged. My initial inference is that April 1st is a day in which harmless pranks are permissible in public life and in the workplace.”

Vincenzo grins again. “You got it, Tin Man. You catch on fast, and you had me going for a second there. Just between you and me, I thought you could be a liability out there, but you’re pretty damn sharp.” Vincenzo pauses, then looks at the plastic storage container held under his right armpit. His expression changes, registering concern. “Whoops. Evidence,” he says. “Well, I need to get this to the courtroom ASAP. But we’ll catch up later. Good luck out there, and don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”

He pats my shoulder as he passes. Before rounding a corner he turns and shouts. “Oh yeah, it’s called April Fools’ Day, but I don’t think you’re gonna be anybody’s fool today, RobotCop.”

I navigate toward the portable facility where I will be given a round of final tests and outfitted with field equipment before my initial patrol. The city government and the police department have agreed that said equipment should not be installed permanently on my person or left in my custody until I demonstrate repeatable success in several categories of police work.

I encounter Detective Washington on the elevator. We are the only passengers.

“A lot of eyes on you today, a lot of scrutiny,” he says, looking straight ahead at the elevator command buttons. He pauses briefly, then continues. “I wouldn’t want to be under that kind of pressure during my first patrol.”

Detective Washington is referring to the legal conditions of my deployment, which entail extensive monitoring. My optical and audio sensors will transmit audiovisual data to the police station, as will a body camera, worn by my partner. The police cruiser’s dashboard camera will relay data as well. The feed will be monitored by a multidisciplinary team of police officials and elected officials, as well as representatives from the private companies and academic establishments responsible for my fabrication and programming. Also present will be lawyers representing several groups, a representative from the U.S. Office for Civil Rights, independent robotics experts, artificial intelligence experts, a small group of journalists, and 6.00 observers from the public, chosen through a process designed to ensure the inclusion of individuals with diverse viewpoints, representative of the larger population.

There are legal conditions surrounding the monitoring of my actions. After a period of litigation lasting 38.73 days, a judge determined that the police department’s argument — that officers of the law are unable to operate effectively under total transparency — had appreciable merit. The audiovisual feed broadcast to the multidisciplinary team will be subject to a five-minute delay. The chief of police and the deputy chief of police will monitor the live version of the feed. They have the ability to censor audio, video or both components of the feed in real time. If their judgment leads them to believe that the department’s operational capabilities or the public safety could be compromised by the feed, they can shut it off entirely. Any censored portions will be considered classified. Those seeking access to the data will be required to submit an application form, in accordance with a request process determined during the 38.73-day litigation period.

However, the multidisciplinary team will have uninterrupted access to a real-time set of diagnostics detailing the status of my electrical, mechanical and computer systems.

“I am designed to withstand up to one thousand pounds per square inch,” I say to Officer Washington.

Detective Washington emits a single chuckle that does not register as relating to mirth. “You know what I mean. I know you do. Sometimes an officer needs room to work.”

“The field actions of a police officer should always be ethical, legal and transparent,” I respond. There is a 4.59-second period of relative silence.

“So they gave you Mackenzie huh?” Washington says abruptly. The elevator door opens and we attempt to step out at the same time.

“Age before luster,” I say, allowing him through. Once we are both in the hallway, it becomes apparent that we are traveling in the same direction.

Detective Washington is correct. I have been assigned to a partnership of indeterminate length with Officer Thomas Mackenzie, a 17-year veteran of the Municipal Police Department. We were introduced two weeks ago. At that time, Mackenzie was given paper copies of a number of documents detailing my physical specifications, as well as a moderately detailed overview of my programming structure and its real-world applications. Mackenzie was also given network access to electronic versions of these files, as well as files — such as 3D models and raw code — that would have been impractical to print. In addition, Mackenzie was required to attend a mandatory three-day intensive instruction course detailing my operating principles.

The process by which Mackenzie was chosen as my partner for the patrol was not shared with me. The duration of the partnership has not been made apparent to me either. When I inquired with Lieutenant Jerikian about both matters, he replied “Let’s see how that first patrol goes first, huh RobotCop?”

“Officer Mackenzie is a venerable and respected member of the Municipal Police force,” I respond.

“I worked with Mackenzie once,” Washington says. He does not make a follow-up statement.

I indicate that I will be turning left at the next hallway intersection. Washington and I stop at the juncture to exchange goodbyes. “I won’t say too much here, but I think you have a very difficult job ahead of you,” he says.

“To protect the serve the citizens of the municipality is never an easy-”

“Don’t be dense with me.”

“The average density of my fabrication materials is roughly 3.26 grams-”

“Alright, alright. I get it.” Washington rolls his eyes. “Maybe you really don’t understand what I’m getting at — about the difficulty.” Washington looks directly into my facial optics without speaking for 5.62 seconds. He looks around the intersecting hallways, as if scanning for other people. “Well anyway, Godspeed RobotCop. Make us proud,” he says loudly, shaking my hand and smiling in a manner that my facial recognition and body language circuits register as inconclusive.

I am driving the police cruiser. Officer Mackenzie is in the passenger seat. In the weeks leading up to my initial patrol, I satisfactorily completed a set of basic driving tests at the Municipal Motor Pool. Afterward, I completed a set of strenuous driving tests at a track and obstacle course maintained by the State Police Department. I have completed 78.46 hours of driving on public roads and highways, accompanied at all times by a police driving instructor and a motion software expert.

On March 27th I received an official state driver’s license from Mayor Vincent P. Chamernik in a semi-public ceremony. “This picture looks nothing like me,” I said to the mayor, prompted by my humor circuit. Both the mayor and the audience laughed.

At the first red light we encounter, 1.00 city blocks away from the Municipal Police Station, Mackenzie addresses me. “What are you doing?” he asks. I turn my head and optics toward him. He is facing forward. My body language circuit detects annoyance.

“I am waiting for the traffic signal to change to green, signaling ‘Go,’ ” I reply.

“Sheesh,” Mackenzie says, lifting his arms and rolling his head in an exaggerated gesture that registers high levels of impatience and frustration. “Don’t tell me you’re gonna play it by the books on everything. This intersection’s clear, so let’s go. We’re here to protect and we can’t afford to waste time. Flash the lights and sirens if you need to satisfy your protocols or whatever.”

“I am programmed to obey as well as enforce all applicable traffic laws in non-emergency situations.”

Officer Mackenzie rubs one of his hands down his face. My audio sensors pick up the scraping sound generated by the rough skin of Mackenzie’s hand and his short facial hairs. The traffic signal indicates green and I accelerate the police cruiser. When I stop at the next red light, Mackenzie groans, then speaks. “Pull into that McDonald’s over there. I’m driving.”

I reply with a verbal “Affirmative” and acquiesce to Officer Mackenzie’s command. Mackenzie is a veteran and a superior within the organization. I am programmed to earn my authority in the department through consistent performance in the line of duty and quality police work — the same way that any other officer would. I have no verifiable evidence that Mackenzie is planning to break local traffic laws. Because of this, my public safety circuit does not factor into my decision to pull over at McDonald’s.

I pull the cruiser into the parking lot and exit the car in order to exchange seats with Officer Mackenzie. The ambient temperature is 58 degrees Fahrenheit, and it is partially cloudy, with a 15% chance of precipitation within the next 3.15 hours. Though I am constructed to function in harsh environmental conditions, the current favorable conditions increase my likelihood of trouble-free operation.

“Do you want anything while we’re here?” Mackenzie asks when we are both standing outside. Though my humor circuit immediately identifies the joke, my body language and tone recognition circuits both detect a low level of aggression.

“Does the McDonald’s restaurant chain serve a motor oil smoothie?” I reply, leaving my voice and body language uninflected in an attempt to present an appearance of robotic obliviousness.

“Har har. Maybe you are alright RobotCop,” Mackenzie replies. However, his body language registers only minimal warmth and friendliness. We pass each other carefully behind the cruiser.

Officer Mackenzie’s operating imperative appears to be preventing the cruiser from ever coming to a complete stop. He uses the headlights, overhead lights, siren and horn to signal other motorists. He also uses the position and motion of the car to signal dominance and aggression to motorists, cyclists and pedestrians. As soon as Mackenzie breaks the first traffic law, my public safety circuit engages. I will notify Mackenzie if his driving stays above my programmed threshold for unsafe non-emergency driving for more than 3.00 consecutive seconds. If Mackenzie stays above the threshold for more than 10.00 seconds I will reprimand him and demand that he return below the threshold. If he does not obey, my public safety circuit will calculate the safest and most effective way for me to gain control of the car and return it to safe operation. I will also attempt to gain control of the car if my physics circuit detects a kinetic situation in which human reaction time and judgment are less than X% likely to avert a collision. The X value is a variable. Its value is instantaneously determined based on the potential severity of the potential collision. This aspect of my programming was provided to Mackenzie in the package he received one week before our patrol, and therefore he should be aware of it.

Mackenzie speaks. His eyes stay focused on the road. “I hope you’re a learning computer, because your job’s gonna be impossible if you don’t pick up a few tricks. Every second we spend at a red light is taxpayer money going down the drain. It’s our duty to do our job as efficiently as possible, even if we have to disregard a few small courtesies.”

My logic circuit evaluates his statement. It is not convincing enough for me to flag the section of my code that he is challenging. “I am programmed to enforce the laws of this jurisdiction while keeping my conduct within the bounds of all applicable police procedures,” I say.

“Yeah yeah. Hey look, I don’t know if this is registering in there, but you’re gonna find yourself on desk duty pretty quick if the brothers on the force don’t feel they can fully trust you,” Mackenzie says. “It’s like a family, and family is always supportive ya know? Willing to allow family members their minor trespasses as long as their hearts are in the right place.” Mackenzie pauses and looks at my facial region. “Well maybe you don’t know. But what I’m saying is keep your programming open buddy. I’ll try and teach you a few things today about how things work where the rubber meets the road.”

He turns his eyes back to the windshield. “Here’s lesson one: the numero uno, primary thing is to look out for your fellow officers, and keep your relationships with them strong, because without them, you’ll be all alone — completely alone — with no one to trust, in a very cold and dangerous world.”


I am in the auditorium with the “multidisciplinary team,” monitoring RobotCop’s first patrol. I really wish I had taken an aisle seat, because I feel — with a fairly high level of certainty — that I am going to lose my composure and vomit. I didn’t expect this experience to be so nerve-wracking, but it is turning out to be nearly unbearable. Watching all my hard work — my life’s work more or less, at this point — playing out on that screen, subject to all the chaotic randomness of the world, vulnerable to million failures big and small, and five minutes behind to boot… it feels like I’m watching my own child run across an endless battlefield, under bombardment from artillery, choked with poison gas, full of land mines and whizzing bullets…

It’s not that I don’t trust RobotCop. I know RobotCop far better than I know myself, or anyone I’ve ever known, really. He’s a fixed actor. His actions are, in a sense, predetermined. Sure, he makes decisions, but these are only a simulacrum of free will. RobotCop always makes the rational choice, because his decision engine weighs every factor, and emotions and self-interest do not impact his process.

Really, it’s us I mistrust — this group of strange bedfellows, ranging from slouched, light-sensitive computer nerds to hard, militaristic SWAT team veterans. We are a team of rivals, and the game board where our ideas battled was given legs and weapons and sent out amongst the public.

Every time RobotCop speaks I wonder how all the contradicting principles can co-exist. Sparks should be shooting out of his neck. He’s a robot — more than that, a synthetic persona — divided against himself, and I wonder how long he can stand.

Mackenzie and RobotCop receive a call. A man has been accused of stealing from a convenience store. The alleged thief denies any wrongdoing, and is so vehement about his innocence that he is actually waiting for the police to arrive, so that he can make his case.

My stomach turns and I let out a distressed, gurgly belch. The journalist sitting to the left of me gives a wide-eyed look and switches his nice-looking DSLR camera to the side opposite me. I rise and begin the squeeze of shame in the other direction. I just can’t watch this sitting down.

I take a position against the wall, switching my attention between the two active projection screens — RobotCop and Mackenzie’s perspectives. As it turns out, the convenience store clerk and robbery suspect are both white males in their mid-30s. Mackenzie keeps his cool, and both the clerk and the suspect are so impressed by RobotCop that they work out the misunderstanding right away, mostly so they can goggle and gape at the future of law enforcement. RobotCop gives a little speech introducing himself and hands each man one of his stainless steel business cards. The numbers machined out of the card are all ones and zeros, and the men notice this and laugh. We are still in the honeymoon phase.

In one sense I am relieved, but in another the moment feels anticlimactic. I want to see RobotCop face a moral test, but Jesus Christ and Mother Mary am I terrified of what will happen if he fails it, or if his answers are… too correct.

“Cute. Real cute.” I turn to my left to see who it is. My stomach twists again and this time begins to ascend into my throat. It’s Louis Argyle, the head of the Policeman’s Benevolent Association, a woefully misnamed organization if I’ve ever heard one.

“Hello Louis,” I say drily, hoping he’ll leave me alone.

“He’s a real charmer. Gilly really outdid himself,” Argyle begins, referring with a nickname of his own invention to Guillermo Parras, the coder and moonlight stand-up comedian who designed RobotCop’s humor circuit. “I’m just glad to know that when shit actually hits the fan, he’ll know which side he’s on,” Argyle continues, with emphasis on the final clause.

Lou Argyle was also nominally on the team. He’s too much of an old-world fossil to understand computer programming, so he wasn’t at the design sessions much, but he still found ways to keep his fingers in the pie. He brought in a small team of contract coders to massage RobotCop’s protocols in the direction of certain unwritten but well-understood police principles — blind loyalty, situation control, omertà, profiling, et cetera. As a member of the American Civil Liberties Union’s technology department, and more importantly, as an ethical member of the human community, I felt it was my duty to counteract Argyle’s influence wherever I could. It was a delicate process. The code was all transparent, and under constant review by a panel of three judges, who had the code translated for them by the most neutral, disinterested programming experts they could find.

“He’s on the people’s side,” I quip with tenuous bravado. “That’s who he works for. That’s who he serves and protects.” Even in the dim light of the ad hoc auditorium I can see Argyle’s nostrils flare. He wants to make me squirm, but in this moment he has less control than he is accustomed to. RobotCop is an almost entirely self-contained unit. His programming cannot be adjusted remotely. The fix is in, and all we can really do is watch.

“Just remember, if your bullshit, bleeding-heart programming gets an officer hurt, it’s on you.” This sounds dramatic, especially with Argyle’s little finger-point gesture behind it, but it is patently untrue — at least in the legal sense. RobotCop’s development and activation was approved by a public ballot initiative in a past election. Once the final code package was approved by the judges and their independent technology consultants, everyone was indemnified by the police department. There is an anonymous private benefactor who agreed to take on financial risk — damage, damages or settlements — above a certain, generously low threshold. So unless he or she is here, no one in the room technically has much of anything to lose.

Financially at least. I look around the room and see a number of hard faces looking back at me. I have a moment of panic. Every officer in the room knows who I am, and it’s not hard to imagine how they’ll react if events develop in a certain way.

I want to step outside for a second, just to get away, but then I remember, glumly, that there is an anti-RobotCop protest march scheduled for today, and that it will be sweeping by the Municipal Police Station any minute now. Some of my coworkers will be in the ranks. Also friends, former lovers, classmates, mentors. I was invited via social media and clicked “Maybe.” Most of them don’t know how involved I am with the RobotCop project. The few that do have been kind enough to help me perpetuate a general vagueness about it. Right now the hideous misunderstandings waiting outside seem somehow worse than being in here, at the mercy of Argyle and the police.

I decide that I should call my wife Tess soon, but with all the dangers lurking near and far, I’m pretty much paralyzed. I’ll stick with the feed unless I really do become ill. Maybe I can watch from somewhere in the back though, and send Tess a reassuring text.

Argyle is still nearby, pretending to watch the feed, but really just watching me. My skin crawls for a long minute, but soon I start to feel a creeping defiance. We did have a vision, some of us, a vision of impartial justice. We worked hard to shelter the seed of it, and we wrote the programming that would make it grow. Now it’s out there for goodness sake, walking and talking and operating, and for that, I really should be proud.

But I am in the lion’s den, no mistake, and what RobotCop does out there could very well determine what happens in here — to me.


I leave the ACLU weakling stewing in his own sweat against the wall. Pathetic. It’s in-fucking-conceivable that this sad-sack has any say, direct or no, over the actions of a peace officer in the field. Dangerous… Goddamned dangerous is what it is.

Just the thought of it is making my saliva sour, so I go looking for O’Flannery. On the way I refill my mug with coffee, and what the hell, I grab a donut too, something to bite and chew, a little sugar to push back the bile.

What’s that pencil-neck’s name again? Some geometry thing… equal sides… Rombus, yeah, Daniel Rombus. He’s been a presence here — a fucking annoying one — for years. I can’t even remember if he’s a real lawyer or just some slimy bureaucrat trying to stick a thumb in our eye. Rombus, always mincing in with thugs in velour tracksuits and those stupid baseball caps with the sticker still on them, leading them by the hand and holding the door for them so they can file their frivolous fucking complaints, clogging up the pipes and keeping any real policework from getting done.

How did they ever allow him on the project? The dweeb has probably never held a gun in his life, much less had one pointed at him, and yet here he is — programming the thing what’s supposed to keep our city safe. At the start things seemed so promising. An officer designed to protect officers, to be the vanguard on the most dangerous drug raids, always watchful for developing threats, never sleeping, the least susceptible to distractions and deceitful sob stories and fallen women and all the other shit that can make an officer’s job so tiresome and discouraging. Then came Rombus. Oh maybe he didn’t singlehandedly compromise the whole shebang, but he set a tone, and all the meetings and oversight and judges that followed eventually queered the deal.

I spot Detective Washington passing close by and give him a nod.

“I miss anything?” he asks, a smile playing at the corners of his lips. Washington never lets me get too close. He keeps his nose clean though, very clean, so I’m always cordial.

“Just a dispute over who drives. I’ve had plenty of those myself. Oh, and a little tiff at a corner store that came to nothing. Otherwise just as dull as any other patrol.”

“Well, no news is good news sometimes, huh?” Washington says, filling his coffee mug. “I’m going to sit down. Enjoy the show.” And before I can say anything he’s striding away.

I look back at Rombus and see him wobbling there, like he’s about to fall over. If anything, we as a force have too much in common with him, too much congenital weakness and pity, and that’s why we need RobotCop. Let the robot deal to the harsh letter of the law with the junkies and the welfare moms and the weed dealers. Hell, everyone would be better for it: less stress on the flesh and blood officers, and less softness shown toward the indigents. He wouldn’t feel those pangs, or the disgust and rage. He’d just uphold the law. My officers could spend less time breaking up fights between baby-mommas and their gold-grilled boyfriends and more time solving murders, rapes and arsons. More time building strong relationships with the people who actually pay the taxes.

But that dream is pretty much dead now. It blew over like a house of cards once that democratic senator and that activist judge swept in. Carpetbaggers, turning the whole thing into some kinda humanitarian farce. Why not just send RobotCop to Lesotho and have it till the fields, milk the goats and carry the water for Christ’s sake? I like the job Gilly did, but that’s pretty much all that’s left. The RobotCop I’m watching now is a clown, toothless, a semi-living lesson in how soft power doesn’t work on hard streets. That’s how I see it happening. I hope something comes along to make me feel otherwise.

As long as none my officers are put in the position to get hurt.

Mackenzie and RobotCop are getting a call.

Something’s happening now. Mackenzie and RobotCop are on foot, preparing to engage a suspect. A real big black guy somebody called in for selling loosies not twenty feet from the door of a convenience store. Brilliant. Mackenzie wants to call for backup because the guy’s so huge, but RobotCop talks him out of it, stepping away from the car and doing some Hulk Hogan poses. I smile despite myself. He does have a good curbside manner. I was a real prick when I was a rookie, and it came back on me more than a couple times, once during a real delicate situation. Still, I never got too soft, because that’s when you become susceptible to mental slips — like taking a perp’s word over a fellow officer’s. Errors like those can easily get somebody killed. Even the small ones can snowball, and destroy the effectiveness of a whole department.

RobotCop gets the big guy’s ID and keeps him company while Mackenzie runs it on the cruiser’s computer. I get tense seeing an officer alone with such a menacing figure, but this is all part of the test. The big guy is agitated, but not aggressive, blowing air and leaning back toward the wall. He doesn’t even seem to notice that he’s looking at a robot police officer. I guess we all look the same to them.

Mackenzie comes back and RobotCop starts the questioning. The first question he asks is about last night’s basketball game. Mackenzie looks miffed, and the suspect does too. “Yeah, I watched with my sons,” he answers, hesitantly, and soon he and RobotCop are talking about playoff matchups and the celebrities that attend the home games. By the time RobotCop asks about the cigarettes the guy is confessing and trying to make amends. RobotCop prints a $20 infraction out of his chest — the darnedest thing — complete with a court date, and it looks like the matter is settled.

I don’t know what to think. “Was somebody reading that thing Dale Carnegie before bed?” I ask out loud. The closest guy to me — a skinny Indian-looking guy with big serial-killer glasses and a mop of curly hair — turns and gives me a look. This usually holy place is turning into some kinda wired-up hippie commune today, and I don’t like it one bit.

“Actually, yes,” the longhair replies, before opening up a tiny laptop and looking down his nose at a set of readouts.

I’m speechless. I’m willing to grant that they got lucky this time, the hearts and minds cabal, but I don’t like the precedent. What if the suspect went berserk and needed to be taken down? There should have been more officers present. I also need to find out if that citation was accurate. I can’t shake the feeling that there should have been an arrest.

Maybe I’m biting off a bit too much here, worrying. I try to keep my finger on the pulse, but my days as an active member of the force are long behind me. O’Flannery will know all about this stuff. I need to talk with him anyway, about RobotCop’s potential membership in the union, and about who’s making that decision.

I finish the donut and lick my fingers. I take a sip of the coffee, which could use a little freshening up. I look over at Rombus again. He’s biting his nails, hardly the touchdown dance I expected. Maybe at the end of the patrol I’ll end up shaking his hand… or wringing his neck. Time will tell.

I head toward the back of the room, looking for O’Flannery.