San Francisco will allow police to use robots with deadly force

A Qinetiq multi-mission explosive ordnance disposal robot. | Source: Qinetiq

San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors voted on Tuesday night to allow the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) to use remote-controlled and potentially lethal robots in emergency situations. The board voted 8-3 in favor of giving police the option to deploy robots as a last resort in emergency situations. 

Tuesday night, the board added language to the proposal to specify that officers can 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. 

This will allow officers to use ground-based robots to kill “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.”

The vote followed an over two-hour-long debate, with opponents of the measure voicing concerns about further militarization of San Francisco’s police force, which civil liberties and other police oversight groups said was already too aggressive with poor and minority communities.

Proponents of the measure, however, 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. 

Currently, the San Francisco Police Department says it has no pre-armed robots and no plans to start strapping guns to robots. Instead, the department said it could equip one of its 12 functioning robots with explosive charges. According to SFPD spokesperson Allison Maxie, these robots would be used to contact, incapacitate or disorient armed or dangerous suspects. 

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

San Francisco Mayor London Breed’s office said the policy “strikes a good balance between protecting lives and establishing guardrails to prevent misuse” in a statement about the decision. 

“If the police are called to serve in a situation where someone intends to do harm or is already doing harm to innocent people, and there is technology that can help to end the violence and save lives, we need to allow police to use these tools to save lives,” the statement continued.
“Under this policy, SFPD is authorized to use these robots to carry out deadly force in extremely limited situations when risk to loss of life to members of the public or officers is imminent and outweighs any other force option available,” City Supervisor Rafael Mandelman wrote on Twitter.
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. 
Using robots for deadly force has remained controversial among the public and within the robotics industry. 
“We are living [in] a dystopian future, where we debate whether the police may use robots to execute citizens without a trial, jury, or judge,” Tifanei Moyer, a senior staff attorney of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of San Francisco Bay Area previously told Mission Local.
“The worst thing about the San Francisco decision to allow robots to use deadly force (even though it is the human controlling the robot making that decision) is how much it contributes to anti-robot sentiment in this country. Overall, robots play a very positive role in our society,” Aaron Prather, director of the Robotics and Autonomous Systems Program at ASTM International, told The Robot Report. “They get us out of those Dull, Dirty, and Dangerous jobs. They raise productivity. They do good. However, this decision will generate thousands of headlines putting robots back in a negative light. Those of us that see the greater positive impact of robots will continue to work to promote them, but the San Francisco decision is just another decision that impacts all of us negatively in the eyes of the uninformed public.” 
The vote to determine if the SFPD could use robots for lethal force was required under a new California law that aims to give the public a voice in the use of military-grade weapons. The law requires police and sheriff departments to inventory military-grade equipment and seek approval for its use. 

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