San Francisco Hits Pause (for Now) on Deploying ‘Killer Police Robots’

18 August 2021, Baden-Wuerttemberg, Stuttgart: A bomb disposal robot drives along a street
Marijan Murat/picture alliance via Getty

San Francisco supervisors voted Tuesday to pause a move by law enforcement agencies to use robots for deadly force.

The reverse follows a public preview of the plan that generated fierce protests led by civil liberties groups, angry at the prospect of police being allowed to deploy robots to kill criminal suspects.

Instead of granting final authorization to the policy in the second of two required votes, the Board of Supervisors reversed course and voted 8-3 to explicitly prohibit police from using remote-controlled robots with lethal force, the San Francisco Chronicle reports.

The matter has now been sent back to a committee for further discussion and could vote in the future to let police use robots in a lethal manner in limited cases.

The board voted last week to allow the use of deadly robots in extreme circumstances.

The police department said it had no plans to arm the robots with guns but wanted the ability to put explosives on them and use then to contact, incapacitate or disorient dangerous or armed suspects when lives are at risk.

The Associated Press

File/A woman holds up a sign at a demonstration about the use of killer robots by the San Francisco Police Department outside of City Hall in San Francisco, Monday, Dec. 5, 2022.  (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

AP reports three supervisors who rejected the policy from the beginning joined dozens of protesters Monday outside City Hall to urge the board to change course.

They chanted and held signs with phrases like “We all saw that movie… No Killer Robots.”

Supervisor Dean Preston was among them, and on Tuesday he told his colleagues the public hadn’t been given enough time to voice their concerns about such a pressing issue.

“The people of San Francisco have spoken loud and clear: There is no place for killer police robots in our city,” he said in a statement after the vote. “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 Associated Press

File/San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott takes questions at a news conference on May 21, 2019, in San Francisco. The liberal city became the unlikely proponent of weaponized police robots on Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2022, after supervisors approved limited use of the remote-controlled devices, addressing head-on an evolving technology that has become more widely available even if it is rarely deployed to confront suspects. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

Some San Francisco officials wanted to proceed with allowing robots to use deadly force in certain cases, arguing nothing substantive had changed to warrant a reversal. But the vote to advance the broader police equipment policy — including the ban on lethal robots — passed unanimously.

It still allows police to use robots to check out potentially dangerous scenes so that officers can stay back, the AP report sets out.

“Having robots that have eyes and ears and can remove bombs, which happens from time to time, is something that we want the police department to do while we continue to have this very controversial discussion,” said Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who brought forward last week’s motion around the use of robots.

The new policy needs another vote to take effect.

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