Police in San Francisco will be allowed to deploy potentially lethal, remote-controlled robots in emergency situations. The controversial policy was approved after weeks of scrutiny and a heated debate among the city’s board of supervisors during their meeting on Tuesday.
Police oversight groups, the ACLU and San Francisco’s public defender had urged the 11-member body to reject the police’s use of equipment proposal. Opponents of the policy said it would lead to further militarization of a police force already too aggressive with underserved communities. They said the parameters under which use would be allowed were too vague. Supporters argued that having these robots as an option in dangerous situations was necessary given what they see as an ever-increasing risk of a high-profile shooting hitting the city.
The policy was approved with an amendment that specifies the circumstances in which robots can be used and clarifying that only high-ranking officers will be allowed to authorize deadly force.
“I’m surprised that we’re here in 2022,” said Hilary Ronen, one of the supervisors at the Tuesday meeting. “We have seen a history of these leading to tragedy and destruction all over the world.”
The San Francisco police department said that it had owned and used robots for tasks such as serving warrants for 11 years and that the department did not have pre-armed robots and had no plans to arm robots with guns. But the department could deploy robots equipped with explosive charges in specific situations such as active shooter incidents and suicide bombers, said David Lazar, San Francisco’s assistant police chief.
“We have it as a a tool [we can use] if we have time, have secured the scene and we weigh out if we want to risk lives or if can we send a robot,” said Lazar during the board of supervisors meeting.
Lazar invoked the 2017 mass shooting during a country music festival in Las Vegas as an example of the kind of situation that could necessitate the use of a robot equipped with explosives. Opposing supervisors argued that the mention of the mass casualty was a scare tactic meant to get a “rubber stamp” on tools that could be disproportionately used against low-income Black and Latino residents. According to a San Francisco Chronicle analysis, Black people were nearly six times more likely to be stopped by police than white residents in 2020.
“I can’t believe what I’m hearing … these kinds of tools will deepen the disparities in inflicting deadly force on communities,” said Dean Preston, a supervisor who represents San Francisco’s long-troubled Tenderloin neighborhood.
The proposed policy does not lay out specifics for how the weapons can and cannot be equipped, leaving open the option to arm them. “Robots will only be used as a deadly force option when risk of loss of life to members of the public or officers is imminent and outweighs any other force option available to SFPD,” it says.
The vote comes under a new California state law that requires police and sheriffs departments to inventory military grade equipment and seek approval for its use. San Francisco police currently have a dozen functioning ground robots used to assess bombs or provide eyes in low visibility situations, the department says. They were acquired between 2010 and 2017.
The state law was authored last year by the San Francisco city attorney, David Chiu, while he was an assemblymember. It is aimed at giving the public a forum and voice in the acquisition and use of military grade weapons that have a negative effect on communities, according to the legislation.
San Francisco police did not immediately respond to a question about how the robots were acquired, but a federal program has dispensed grenade launchers, camouflage uniforms, bayonets, armored vehicles and other surplus military equipment to help local law enforcement, according to the Associated Press.
In 2017, Donald Trump signed an order reviving the Pentagon program after Barack Obama curtailed it in 2015, triggered in part by outrage over the use of military gear during protests in Ferguson, Missouri, after the shooting death of Michael Brown.
Like many places around the US, San Francisco is trying to balance public safety with treasured civilian rights such as privacy and the ability to live free of excessive police oversight. In September, supervisors agreed to a trial run allowing police to access in real time private surveillance camera feeds in certain circumstances.
Supporters of the police’s equipment use policy argue that San Francisco’s status as a major city that sees thousands of tourists and dozens of conventions annually also makes it a target for terrorism or high-profile mass shootings. To restrict the use of these robots could make the city seem like a “target”, said Matt Dorsey, another supervisor.
“It terrifies me that it takes one person with evil in his heart to hear that San Francisco is unique in what we deny to our law enforcement agencies. God forbid we are depriving ourselves of something that can help public safety,” Dorsey continued. “I’m not comfortable making my city a target.”
The Oakland police department across the San Francisco Bay dropped a similar proposal after public backlash.