The San Francisco Board of Supervisors approved a policy on Tuesday officially allowing police to arm human-controlled robots with explosives to kill or incapacitate people in extreme circumstances.
The two-hour policy debate was heated among the left-wing board members, according to news reports. Supporters argued that police can be trusted to use the robots, which could help stop a mass casualty event. Opponents said approving the use of killer robots was like something out of a science fiction movie, and a threat to the poor and to people of color.
According to the policy, which was approved in an eight-to-three vote, “robots will only be used as a deadly force option when risk of loss of life to members of the public or officers are imminent and outweigh any other force option available to SFPD.” The board amended the policy Tuesday to note that only a limited number of high-ranking officers could authorize the use of robots as a deadly force option, and that they could only be used after other de-escalation tactics failed, the Associated Press reported.
The San Francisco Police Department has a dozen functioning robots that are typically used to assess bombs, execute warrants, function in hazmat situations, and provide officers the ability to see in low-visibility situations. For over a decade, the department has had the ability to use its robots to deliver deadly force, but never did. A new state law – California Assembly Bill 481 – now requires law enforcement agencies to get direction from their governing bodies on how they can utilize military-style equipment and weaponry, including robots.
Police say they have no intention of arming robots with firearms. But under the policy they could equip the robots with explosives “to contact, incapacitate, or disorient violent, armed, or dangerous suspects,” when lives are at stake, police spokeswoman Allison Maxie told the AP. “Robots equipped in this manner would only be used in extreme circumstances to save or prevent further loss of innocent lives.”
Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, a supporter of the robot policy, said police need to have the most advanced technology available to stop mass shootings and terrorism. He defended the police department, and said it is “bad for progressives” to paint the police as untrustworthy.
“To say this is some rogue organization terrorizing the neighborhoods of San Francisco that can not be trusted with technology they’ve had for more than a decade, is beyond preposterous to me,” he said, according to the San Francisco Examiner.
The three board members who voted against the policy expressed concerns about unintended consequences. “It opens up a Pandora’s box that is terrifying,” Supervisor Hillary Ronen said, according to the Examiner.
Before Tuesday’s vote, Supervisor Dean Preston tweeted his opposition. “Allowing SFPD to use robots to inflict deadly force is a terrible idea, something one would expect to find in a sci-fi film, not before a legislative body in San Francisco,” he wrote.
Board President Shamann Walton said voting against the policy did not make him anti-police, but instead “pro people of color,” according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
“We continuously are being asked to do things in the name of increasing weaponry and opportunities for negative interaction between the police department and people of color,” he said, according to the paper. “This is just one of those things.”
Last month, Oakland police decided against bringing a similar proposal to its city council.
The first time a robot was used to deliver explosives in the U.S. was in 2016, when police in Dallas, Texas used a robot to kill a sniper who had killed five officers, the AP reported.