Hot potato: The San Francisco Police Department is now authorized to use lethal robotic force against violent criminals under new city regulations. Only three of the 11 members of the supervisory board opposed the controversial decision. Opponents, including the ALCU and EFF, fear that using robots against human suspects dehumanizes law enforcement and violates due process for suspects. The SFPD insists that this tactic will not be abused.
Last week, the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) made a controversial rule change allowing police officers to use robots to kill suspects. The rule was opposed by the Board of Supervisors and civil rights advocates, including the ACLU. After at least one set of amendments, the SFPD finally submitted the proposal to the city for approval.
Tuesday Supervisory Board approved new rules in voting 8-3 with changes. Fox affiliate KTVU notes that regulations regarding the use of lethal robotic force provide that “trained” officers may use “military grade vehicles” to kill suspects in “critical incidents.” An additional requirement, which was not in the original draft, was that the SFPD must first assess the situation and apply alternative non-lethal tactics.
Beyond is disappointed that the Board appears ready to allow the SFPD to use armed robots to use force against humans. Only four of us are clearly opposed. Short-sighted, dangerous, sad. The spirit of science fiction, which I have always admired, is crying today. https://t.co/yevWUOoFXF
— Hillary Ronen (@HillaryRonen) November 30, 2022
In addition, the rule has been changed so that the 17 robots in the SFPD armory, which are all unarmed, cannot be equipped with firearms. Instead, they will use explosives, including explosive devices designed to disorient a suspect. However, the Board will consider lethality as an acceptable collateral damage. It’s worth noting that the first time US police used a robot to kill a suspect, explosives were the weapon of choice.
“There’s a lot of talk about RoboCop, which I think makes you think about all sorts of places, but it’s not. [sic]”, said supporter of the supervisor Rafael Mandelman. “I think it’s perfectly appropriate. In fact, I think it would be irresponsible not to plan for the use of this technology in such a dire scenario.”
Civil rights groups still do not share the same optimistic outcome of the rule. Political analyst Matthew Guarilla of the Electronic Frontier Foundation says it’s a very slippery slope.
Today’s vote endorsing the SFPD’s dystopian military hardware policy, which would allow the SFPD to use robots to kill people, is deeply disturbing. This is a sad moment for our city and shows how far we have come from 2020’s reckoning for police violence. Here is my statement. pic.twitter.com/gFLllm3xvF
— Dean Preston (@DeanPreston) November 30, 2022
“It’s really just opening a window that eventually someone will want to crawl through,” Guarilla told KTVU. “We’re going to reduce the burden of lethal force from having to draw a gun and pull the trigger on a button on a remote control.”
The SFPD is reassuring the public that it will primarily use explosive robots to break into buildings where violent and dangerous suspects are barricaded, and that the force of the explosion has the potential to cause unintentional death. Ideally, officers would still have to confront and try to arrest suspects.
“Although an explosive charge can be considered an intermediate strength option, it has the potential to cause injury or death. Robots so equipped will only be used in extreme circumstances to save or prevent further loss of innocent lives,” the spokesman said.
No firearms are attached to any of the robots, and the SFPD has no plans to attach firearms. However, in extreme circumstances, using a robot may be the best and only way to deal with a terrorist or mass murderer. 3/5
— Rafael Mandelman (@RafaelMandelman) November 30, 2022
Chief Hillary Ronen was among three board members who voted against the proposed rules, calling the mechanical force rule “short-sighted, dangerous, [and] sad.”
“Most disappointing is that the Board seems ready to allow the SFPD to use armed robots to use force against humans. Only four of us are clearly opposed. Short-sighted, dangerous, sad. The sci-fi spirit I’ve always admired is crying today.” – Ronen tweeted shortly before the vote. “Even worse than I thought! Only three of us—me, Shamann Walton, and Dean Preston—voted against arming robots with weapons to kill. Damn shame,” she said. corrected after.
Board President Shamann Walton said this was another thing that would increase the likelihood of negative police interactions with “people of color.” District 5 Chief Dean Preston called it “deeply disturbing” and “dystopian”.
Supporters defended their votes, with chief Rafael Mandelman pointing out that the SFPD has been using robots for 10 years without firearms attached and the department has no intention of equipping them. They will continue to be used for remote surveillance and bomb disposal, but using them as a lethal weapon would be a last resort.
“I’d buy it for a dollar.”