At Cityview, we get a lot of suggestions from readers insisting we write about their latest plight of injustice. Despite our rabble-rousing reputation as an alternative newsweekly in Des Moines, and though we do entertain such intrigues on occasion, the majority of these complaints get filed into the “maybe” story folder — and it’s a thick folder. There are simply not enough squid in the deep blue sea to produce the ink to tell everyone’s saga.
But one such exception landed on our editor’s desk in November of 2012 in the form of a hand-written letter, which after several weeks of arduous investigations into police and city records, we eagerly made room in our calendar to tell his story, one that is as astounding as it is worrisome. And it all began with a letter.
“I know you probably get a lot of these letters, but please hear me out…” the note read.
Admittedly, the letter was not well-crafted, and thus too cumbersome to quote. But in summary, Daniel Busch, of Des Moines, said he was recently cited for illegally parking front-facing in a back-in-only spot on the Court Avenue Bridge, just 100 yards from the police station. He said he was issued a ticket, but it was not scribbled onto a note pad by an attractive “meter maid” who smugly tore the sheet away and slipped it remorselessly onto the windshield with a snap of the wiper.
“It was a robo-cop,” Busch stated.
Just three sentences into his letter, and we were hooked, but still cautious about Busch’s far-fetched claim.
“I swear I am not bullshitting, here,” his letter begged. “Instead of a meter maid writing my ticket, it was a robot cop. It had the little, blue hat, the official cop badge and everything. It spit out a parking ticket like an ATM machine gives out a receipt, and it rolled up over the curb and put it under my windshield wiper just like a real cop would do.
“I can tell you that I’m not paying that ticket. If they want to give out parking tickets, they need to have a real person writing them.”
Considering the ongoing controversy of the current speed and red-light cameras used for doling out traffic tickets minus the presence of an actual human law enforcement officer, we believed his plea might possibly have an ounce of potential and kept his file active.
A month later, we received a manila envelope slipped under the front door and addressed to our editor. It was sent by a former operations technology specialist, Dr. Emily Mare, claiming she was fired without just reason by the Des Moines Police Department. At first glance, it seemed to be yet another run-of-the-mill, axe-grinding letter from a citizen who wanted Cityview to investigate a grievance. But the story she detailed in her letter — to our surprise — gave Busch’s letter merit, especially as it was coupled with a classified file labeled “Project Ming.”
Project Ming is named after a Japanese information technology professor, Yuuto Ming, we learned. The file was incomplete, and Mare later explained that was because she was escorted off premises the day she was fired and was only able to smuggle out a few documents without being detected. What she was able to swipe from the IT closet and send to Cityview, however, was a detailed description of a sort of prototype droid that seemed straight out of a George Lucas film. A farce, at least. But according to the documents, the Project Ming droid would actually be used for minor law enforcement tasks, such as directing traffic, misdemeanor arrests and issuing citations.
“Droid No. 532-A is ready for prototype implementation,” Ming’s notes said. “Phase II: Initiate activation in a metropolis with a population less than 1 million and with (what the The American Law Enforcement Association Field Studies Handbook of America defines as) low to moderate crime levels.”
Des Moines was chosen as the favorite city for such a prototype project over Tulsa, Okla., and Winnipeg, Canada. Along with a list of the droid’s functions was a blueprint of what was undeniably a police robot, measured at four feet tall and sporting a police badge and a little, blue hat, just as Busch had described in his letter.
By the time we had scheduled a face-to-face interview with Dr. Mare, we’d received three phone calls, two more letters and 18 emails from locals with stories similar to Busch’s.
Uncovering Project Ming
The push-back we received at the DMPD furthered our suspicions. Des Moines Public Information Officer Telly Savalies repeatedly denied having any knowledge of Project Ming after several inquiries from our office.
“The Des Moines Police Department cannot, and will not, confirm any such claims,” Savalies wrote in an official statement to Cityview. “There is no Project Ming. It does not exist.”
When we asked about the firing of Dr. Mare, Savalies said he could not comment on personnel matters. However, in defense, Mare supplied Cityview with her performance reviews since her introduction into the department four years ago, when the Technology Operations Division was created for Mare to lead.
“Essentially I was hired to oversee the initialization and implementation of Project Ming in the fall of 2008,” Mare said in an interview. “I was told the project was to remain strictly classified. It’s been kept secret for more than four years. I built the droid according to the specs provided to me by the Federal Agency of Robotic Technology and Synthetics. I did everything they asked me to.”
Mare launched Project Ming on Feb. 3, and Droid 532-A’s first assignment was traffic control at Wells Fargo Arena during the Extreme Midget Wrestling Regional Finals. According to several of the calls and emails to Cityview, Droid 532-A was poised in the middle of the intersection of Third and Crocker Streets directing traffic with a particular attention to pedestrians at crosswalks.
“It put up its hand, like a real cop would do, telling me not to go as people were crossing in front of me,” said Muscatine resident Charlie Anderson. “I couldn’t move if I wanted to. It seemed like it had some sort of magnetic control over my car and was holding me there — like I’m just going to mow down pedestrians with my smartcar?”
That’s not the only mechanical authority granted to the prototype. Lucy Bernagerslofulter, 22, of Clive, said she and her friends were exiting a downtown bar when they encountered Droid 532-A, which she said arrested her using excessive force.
“It said, ‘Hello, citizens,’ in like a GPS-like voice,” Bernagerslofulter said. “We like sort of said ‘hi’ back, all like weirded out by it, and then a screen on its face started showing like red numbers — sort of like an alarm clock — and the numbers went like up and up and up. Then the robot said I was like under arrest for like public intox. The screen on its face said 0.172. I mean, I was like drunk, but what the hell? A robot? Like, you can’t get arrested by a robot! It’s not even a real cop.”
While Bernagerslofulter was being questioned by the droid, a friend took video with her cell phone. The video shows Bernagerslofulter trying to flee before being taken to the ground by the droid. (See video HERE )
“We just couldn’t believe it,” said Manda Nyspare, who witnessed the unprecedented arrest and took the video. “We thought we were like being totally like punked or something.”
They weren’t being punked. Bernagerslofulter was booked and processed at the Polk County Jail where she remained until her initial appearance in Magistrate Court the next morning.
Even with seven written affidavits by citizens who were sanctioned by Droid 532-A, the computer-aided blueprints of the droid that matched the description offered by the witnesses and video footage, Savalies once again denied Project Ming’s existence.
“Who are you going to believe, a trusted officer of justice and law, or a bunch of damn criminals?” Savalies said heatedly during an interview on March 1.
Less than two weeks later, the DMPD held a press conference at Debbie’s Donut Hole, a diner on Southeast 38th Street. Only 14 people were in attendance, and no members of the media were present except Cityview, thanks to an anonymous tip.
“About a year ago, our department was approached by the members of the Federal Agency of Robotics Technology and Synthetics regarding a top secret public safety protocol project,” Savalies began. “After much deliberation, the Agency chose the city of Des Moines to launch a public safety protocol project unlike any the world has ever seen. It’s called Project Ming.”
Savalies went on to confirm nearly all of our sources’ claims. In less than a month on duty, Droid 532-A was responsible for a dozen arrests, including eight public intoxication violations and the conviction of four prostitutes, as well as the issuance of 42 parking tickets — a potential gross revenue of more than $6,832.14 for the city, according to Savalies.
“And that’s just Phase II of this experimental project,” Savalies proudly beamed.
Droid 532-A was officially introduced to “the public” at 8:25 a.m. on March 12, much to the dismay of Floyd Boister, representing the DMPD Union Local 421.
“This is a goddamn outrage. I don’t think the goddamn department heads realize how many goddamn cops will be out of jobs if this goddamn thing catches on nationally,” Boister said. “It started with goddamn cameras at goddamn stop lights and speed zones, and now this?”
The local police union isn’t the only opposition to the Ming Project. We asked Cityview Facebook fans for their opinions:
“I refuse to pay any tickets issued by a machine,” commented Cindy Lapier.
“That Robocop tries to bust me and we’ll see how tough that metal shell holds up against my Louisville Slugger… better yet, my hatchet… better yet, a blow torch. Bring it on,” stated Ben Rounds.
“It all started with those self-check-out lanes in Walmart putting good, hard-working disabled citizens out of one of the few jobs they can actually get. Then the cameras everywhere like we’re a society of criminals. Then unmanned drones replacing our red-blooded United States marines and now robo cop incarnate? What next? I don’t even want to know,” wrote Beth Jordison.
But Federal Agency of Robotics and Synthetics special agent Rip Won argues the technology will save lives and money.
“Think about it,” Won urged. “No more cops caught in criminal cross fires; no more lives lost. If Project Ming proves to be as successful as we think it will be, public safety occupations will include only highly-specialized positions — detectives and admins. Sure, it would mean a loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs for patrol officers, but think of how much money taxpayers would save on payroll, insurance, workman’s comp and other benefits.
“The Ming droids are virtually indestructible. They can’t be bought or contaminated by corruption. They can be programmed to perfection — always on target and adhered to standard operating procedures. No more mistakes.”
At this point it’s still too early to determine if Ming droids are a necessary good or a dire step in the wrong direction for public safety. Droid 532-A will continue its prototype program in Des Moines for a 13-week trial period, after which, Won said, Project Ming could go in one of two directions: onward to Phase 2, the assembly-line manufacturing of thousands more to be activated at law enforcement agencies throughout the state — and eventually millions worldwide — or the scrap yard.
Tell us what you think
Go out our online survey: ROBO COPS OR NOT: Do police droids save lives and money, or is Project Ming the first step to the real “Terminator Judgment Day?” APRIL FOOLS