In reversal, San Francisco bans police from using robots with lethal force

A woman holds up a sign while taking part in a demonstration about the use of robots by the San Francisco Police Department outside of City Hall in San Francisco on Monday. | Credit: Jeff Chiu/AP

San Francisco supervisors reversed course on Tuesday and unanimously voted to temporarily ban its police department from using robots with lethal force. The issue is being sent back to a committee for further discussion and could be voted on again in the future.

Tuesday’s unanimous vote is a reversal from last week’s 8-3 vote in favor of allowing police officers to use remote-controlled, ground-based robots with lethal force in emergency situations. The board voted in favor of giving police the option to deploy robots as a last resort.

The police said last week they had no plans to arm the robots with guns, but wanted the ability to put explosives on them in extraordinary circumstances. The proposal said officers could only use such robots after using alternative force, de-escalation tactics or deciding that the subject wouldn’t be subdued using these alternative means. Even then, only a few high-ranking officers can authorize the use of robots for deadly force.

The proposal would have allowed officers to use robots to kill a suspect “when risk of loss of life to members of the public or officers is imminent and officers cannot subdue the threat after using alternative force options or de-escalation tactics.”

However, some supervisors said they felt the public did not have enough time to engage in the discussion about whether robots could be used to kill people before the board first voted last week.

“The people of San Francisco have spoken loud and clear: There is no place for killer police robots in our city,” supervisor Dean Preston told ABC News in a statement after Tuesday’s reversal. “There have been more killings at the hands of police than any other year on record nationwide. We should be working on ways to decrease the use of force by local law enforcement, not giving them new tools to kill people.”

“The use of robots in potentially deadly force situations is a last resort option. We live in a time when unthinkable mass violence is becoming more commonplace,” San Francisco Police Chief William Scott said at the time. “We need the option to be able to save lives in the event we have that type of tragedy in our city.”

Proponents of the measure said using robots in extreme situations can keep more police officers safe by taking them out of deadly situations. Some said it could decrease the use of deadly force, as officers often use it when they feel their lives are in danger, and a robot would remove that risk.

“Thanks to the passionate residents of the Bay Area and the leadership of Supervisors Preston, Ronen, and Walton, the Board today voted against SFPD use of deadly force with remote-controlled robots,” said Matthew Guariglia, policy analyst for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “Should the Rules Committee revisit the issue, the community must come together to stop this dangerous use of technology.”

The first time a robot was reportedly used by law enforcement with deadly force in the United States was in Dallas in 2016, when police used a bomb-disposal robot equipped with an explosive device to kill a sniper who had killed five police officers.

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