San Francisco regulators have turned 180 degrees in connection with their decision to allow the use of killer robots

Why is it important: A week ago, San Francisco officials gave the green light to a rule change that would allow the local police department to use robots to kill suspects in extremely dangerous scenarios. The Supervisory Board approved the measure only with a symbolic objection by 8 votes to 3. Now the board has turned 180.

In a second vote to determine whether officers can use deadly force with remote-controlled robots, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors effectively shot down ruling by 8 votes to 3 approving a ban on lethal robots. The board must approve law enforcement rule changes twice before sending them to City Hall for final approval. The San Francisco Chronicle notes that revoting is often considered a formality, as it is extremely rare for the board to reverse its original decision.

Civil rights activists rioted last week when the rule was first passed. Many viewed the move as appointing a judge, jury, and executioner for the San Francisco Police Department. The SFPD explained that it would only use this tactic when the lives of civilians or officers were in imminent danger, and had exhausted other options for de-escalation.

However, the department’s explanation did little to quell the resentment of San Francisco residents. Opposition watchdogs then threatened to turn the rule changes into a vote so San Francisco residents could make a decision. This threat appears to have convinced the five bosses to change their minds.

“The people of San Francisco are saying loud and clear: there is no place for police killer robots in our city,” Chief Executive Dean Preston commented after Tuesday’s vote. “[We] should work to reduce the use of force by local law enforcement rather than give them new tools to kill people.”

The ball is now back in the court of the Rules Committee. The council-approved amendment expressly prohibits officers from using lethal robotic force. The SFPD may further revise the rule and resubmit it, possibly adding further restrictions to lessen the public’s concerns, or may opt to drop it and accept the board’s ban. The rules committee will work on the draft over the next week.

The rule changes come in response to California’s AB481 law, which requires all state law enforcement agencies to file detailed annual reports on the use of their military arsenals, including robots. These reports must include descriptions of the weapons and explanations of their use.

Image credits: military robot Wedim, Robocop Jose Padilla

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