July 23, 2024


Technological development

San Francisco bars police from using killer robots after outcry

San Francisco bars police from using killer robots after outcry


San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to bar police from using robots to kill, in a striking reversal that comes just a week after it gave law enforcement that right in a limited number of situations.

The board had received widespread criticism after voting Nov. 29 to approve a police proposal authorizing law enforcement to deploy remote-controlled, ground-based robots to use deadly force when there is “imminent” risk to life and alternative measures to subdue the threat do not work.

Officials on Tuesday also sent the issue back to a committee for additional review, leaving the policy open to future amendment.

District Supervisor Dean Preston (D), who had voted against the measure last week, called the reversal “crucial.”

“There have been more killings at the hands of police than any other year on record nationwide,” Preston said in a statement. “We should be working on ways to decrease the use of force by local law enforcement, not giving them new tools to kill people.”

“Common sense prevailed,” said Supervisor Hillary Ronen (D), who had also originally opposed the measure.

The San Francisco Police Department had called last week’s vote a “testament to the confidence” of officials and residents in law enforcement. Chief William Scott said after Tuesday’s vote that the debate around armed robots had been “distorted” to distract from the issue of law enforcement having necessary tools to save lives in an “active shooter or mass casualty incident.”

“We want to use our robots to save lives – not take them,” he said in a statement to The Post. “To be sure, this is about neutralizing a threat by equipping a robot with a lethal option as a last case scenario, not sending an officer in on a suicide mission.”

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Officials had been required to vote on the policy because of a recent state law that requires police departments to seek approval from local officials for the use of military-grade equipment, the Associated Press reported.

Militaries have long used unmanned devices to kill, but the debate over whether police can deploy killer robots first emerged in the United States after an incident in Dallas in 2016. After a lone gunman killed five officers in an extended standoff, police placed explosives on a robot and detonated the bomb to kill the shooter.

The board’s vote last week sparked furious debate and angry protests from rights groups who were concerned about the “militarization” of law enforcement, which they argue would disproportionately affect communities of color, who are more likely to be killed in police encounters than White Americans.

The proposal “is not a public safety solution, as the department claims, but an expansion of police power that history and common sense demonstrates will endanger lives needlessly,” reads a Dec. 5 letter from several Bay Area civil rights groups to Mayor London Breed (D) and the supervisors.

Can police use robots to kill? San Francisco voted yes.

The pressure seemed to have worked on board members such as Gordon Mar (D), who publicly switched his position ahead of Tuesday’s vote. Mar said Tuesday that he had grown “increasingly uncomfortable” with the precedent the policy would set for other cities and had decided to vote against it.

San Francisco’s police department acquired robots between 2010 and 2017, which they said were primarily used during situations involving explosives or those requiring officers to keep distance while securing a site. They currently are not equipped to use lethal force.

The department said that only a small number of high-ranking officials were authorized to deploy robots that could use lethal force. Scott, the police chief, had said that it would be used only as a “last resort option.”