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San Francisco City Board Approves Use of Police Robots to Kill Suspects

“I’m really just stunned that we’re here talking about this,” an opposing member of the city board of supervisors said.

San Francisco Police Chief William Scott speaks during a press conference to present 2021 crime statistics on violent crimes and property crime at the San Francisco Police Department Headquarters on January 26, 2022, in San Francisco, California.

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted by a margin of 8-3 on Tuesday to grant the city’s police department the legal authority to use remotely controlled robots to attack and kill suspects in certain circumstances.

The measure was widely condemned by civil liberty and police oversight organizations. City officials and members of the board who voted against the authorization said that the move would further militarize a police force that already enacts violence against poor and marginalized communities.

“Most law enforcement weapons are used against people of color. I’m really just stunned that we’re here talking about this,” San Francisco board president Shamann Walton said.

The San Francisco Public Defender’s Office voiced its opposition to the policy in a letter to the board, describing it as “dehumanizing and militaristic.”

Notably, San Francisco police officers have shot and killed at least 58 people since 2000. At least fourteen percent of those killed were homeless — and although only around 5 percent of the city’s population is Black, they made up over 30 percent of fatal police shootings.

The policy is not yet official — it must pass another vote by the board next week, and be approved by Mayor London Breed before being implemented.

According to the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD), robots have been obtained through federal grant money rather than military surplus. They also said that the robots have not yet been equipped with firearms and there is no immediate plan to do so. But the department’s current fleet of robots — used for reconnaissance, bomb disposal and other types of rescue missions — could be armed with explosives if deemed necessary “to contact, incapacitate, or disorient violent, armed, or dangerous suspect,” a spokesperson for the department said.

Per the policy, lethal robots could only be deployed “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.” Supervisors also amended the original text of the proposal to clarify that only high ranking SFPD officials could approve the lethal use of robots, but didn’t specify what oversight there would be for such decisions, if any.

Board members who voted in favor of the policy, including Supervisor Connie Chan, suggested that state law “required” the board to approve “the use of these equipments.” But the law that they referred to simply requires police and sheriff’s departments to inventory their military-grade equipment and seek approval for their use — it does not require jurisdictions to create new measures that allow for the lethal use of such equipment. Indeed, the city of Oakland dropped a similar proposal earlier this year after it was met with widespread backlash.

Police departments have used robots to kill suspects before, including in 2016, when the Dallas, Texas, police department rigged a robot with explosives during a standoff with a suspect accused of ambushing and killing five officers. But while robots have been used to kill suspects extrajudicially in the past, it’s unclear whether any major city in the U.S. has blatantly given their police departments authorization to do so.

“In my knowledge, this would be the first city to take this step of passing a law authorizing killer robots,” Albert Fox Cahn, executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, said to The Washington Post, adding that San Francisco’s action could set a dangerous precedent.

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