Officials in San Francisco have voted to give the city’s police the power to use potentially lethal, remote-controlled robots in emergency situations.
The 8-3 vote in favour of the move followed an emotionally charged two-hour debate and came despite strong objections from civil liberties and other police oversight groups in the city on the west coast of the United States.
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Supervisor Connie Chan, a member of the committee that forwarded the proposal to the full board, said she understood concerns over use of force but that “according to state law, we are required to approve the use of these equipments. So here we are, and it’s definitely not an easy discussion.”
The San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) has 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 proposal had been amended before it was passed to clarify that officers would only be allowed to use robots after they had exhausted alternative force or de-escalation tactics or concluded they would not be able to subdue the suspect through those alternative means. Just a limited number of high-ranking officers have the power to authorise the use of robots as a deadly force option.
San Francisco police currently have a dozen functioning ground robots, which are used to assess bombs or provide eyes in low visibility situations, according to the department. They were acquired between 2010 and 2017.
A new California law came into effect this year requiring police and sheriff’s departments to inventory military-grade equipment and seek approval for their use, amid concern the militarisation of the police was creating a climate among law enforcement that encouraged excessive force.
In a letter earlier this week, the San Francisco Public Defender’s office warned that granting police “the ability to kill community members remotely” went against the city’s progressive values. The office wanted the board to reinstate language barring police from using robots against any person in an act of force.
On the other side of San Francisco Bay, the Oakland Police Department dropped a similar proposal after public backlash.
The first time a robot was used to deliver lethal force in the US 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.