San Francisco Pulls a 180 on Killer Robots Plan

Police had said robots would be deployed only to 'save or prevent further loss of innocent lives'
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Nov 30, 2022 7:53 AM CST
Updated Dec 7, 2022 2:30 AM CST
SF Police Can Now Use Killer Robots
San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott answers questions during a news conference in San Francisco, on May 21, 2019.   (AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File)
UPDATE Dec 7, 2022 2:30 AM CST

San Francisco supervisors voted Tuesday to put the brakes on a controversial policy that would let police use robots for deadly force, the AP reports. The Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to explicitly ban the use of robots in such fashion for now. But they sent the issue back to a committee for further discussion and could allow it in limited cases at another time. It's a reversal from last week's vote allowing the use of robots in limited cases. The police said they had no plans to arm the robots with guns but wanted the ability to put explosives on them in extraordinary circumstances. Last week's approval generated pushback and criticism about the potential to deploy robots that can kill people. Several supervisors joined dozens of protestors outside City Hall on Monday to urge the board to change course.

Nov 30, 2022 7:53 AM CST

Supervisors in San Francisco voted Tuesday to give city police the ability to use potentially lethal, remote-controlled robots in emergency situations—following an emotionally charged debate that reflected divisions on the politically liberal board over support for law enforcement. The vote was 8-3, with the majority agreeing to grant police the option despite strong objections from civil liberties and other police oversight groups, per the AP. Opponents said the authority would lead to the further militarization of a police force already too aggressive with poor and minority communities.

Supervisor Connie Chan, a member of the committee that forwarded the proposal to the full board, said she understood concerns over use of force but that "according to state law, we are required to approve the use of these equipments." The San Francisco Police Department said it does not have pre-armed robots and has no plans to arm robots with guns. But the department could deploy robots equipped with explosive charges "to contact, incapacitate, or disorient violent, armed, or dangerous suspect" when lives are at stake, said SFPD spokesperson Allison Maxie, adding this would only be done "in extreme circumstances to save or prevent further loss of innocent lives."

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Supervisors amended the proposal Tuesday to specify that officers could use robots only after using alternative force or de-escalation tactics, or concluding they would not be able to subdue the suspect through those alternative means. Only a limited number of high-ranking officers could authorize use of robots as a deadly force option. San Francisco police currently have a dozen functioning ground robots used to assess bombs or provide eyes in low visibility situations, the department says. Not once have they been used to deliver an explosive device, police officials said. But explicit authorization was required after a new California law went into effect this year requiring police and sheriffs departments to inventory military-grade equipment and seek approval for their use. (More San Francisco stories.)

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