San Francisco debates letting police deploy robots that kill

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Supervisors in San Francisco held a heated debate Tuesday over whether to give city police the ability to use potentially lethal, remote-controlled robots in emergency situations, with both sides accusing the other of reckless fearmongering.

Police oversight groups are urging the 11-member Board of Supervisors to reject the idea, saying it would lead to further militarization of a police force already too aggressive with poor and minority communities. They said the parameters under which use would be allowed are too vague.

The San Francisco Police Department said it does not have pre-armed robots and has no plans to arm robots with guns. But the department could deploy robots equipped with explosive charges “to contact, incapacitate, or disorient violent, armed, or dangerous suspect” when lives are at stake, SFPD spokesperson Allison Maxie said in a statement.

“Robots equipped in this manner would only be used in extreme circumstances to save or prevent further loss of innocent lives,” she said.

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 city’s board members are staunch Democrats who favor gun control, reproductive freedoms and civil rights protections, but they are deeply divided on support for law enforcement.

Several supervisors said it shocked them that a city accustomed to protesting the use of military drones would entertain the idea of allowing a robot to possibly kill a person. But others said police were making a reasonable request and were only carving out permission in case of catastrophe.

“Everything that was said in this hearing, I don’t see how a robot being armed with certain weaponry would save lives,” said Shamann Walton, president of the Board of Supervisors.

The vote comes under a new California law that requires police and sheriffs departments to inventory military-grade equipment and seek approval for their 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 San Francisco City Attorney David Chiu while he was an assembly member. 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.

In 2017, then-President Donald Trump signed an order reviving the Pentagon program after his predecessor, 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.

The first time a robot was used to deliver explosives in the U.S. was in 2016, when Dallas police sent in an armed robot that killed a holed-up sniper who had killed five officers in an ambush.

Like many places around the U.S., 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.

The San Francisco Public Defender’s office sent a letter Monday to the board saying that granting police “the ability to kill community members remotely” goes against the city’s progressive values. The office would like the board to reinstate language barring police from using robots against any person in an act of force.

On the other side of the San Francisco Bay, the Oakland Police Department has dropped a similar proposal after public backlash.

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