San Francisco approves police use of robots armed with explosive charges. Following an emotionally charged debate that reflected divisions on the politically liberal board over support for law enforcement, it was voted by Supervisors in San Francisco to give city police the ability to use potentially lethal, remote-controlled robots in emergency situations.
Despite strong objections from civil liberties and other police oversight groups, the majority agreed to grant police the option, in an 8-3 vote. The authority would lead to the further militarization of a police force already too aggressive with poor and minority communities, the opponents argued.
A member of the committee that forwarded the proposal to the full board, Supervisor Connie Chan, said that she understood the concerns over the use of force but that “according to state law, we are required to approve the use of this equipment. So here we are, and it’s definitely not an easy discussion.”
2016 was the year when a robot was used for the first time. It was used to deliver explosives in the U.S. when Dallas police sent in an armed robot that killed a holed-up sniper who had killed five officers in an ambush, reported The Hill.
The San Francisco Police Department does not have pre-armed robots and has no plans to arm robots with guns, as they say, but spokesperson Allison Maxie said in a statement that the department could deploy robots equipped with explosive charges “to contact, incapacitate, or disorient violent, armed, or dangerous suspect” when lives are at stake.
Maxie said that “robots equipped in this manner would only be used in extreme circumstances to save or prevent further loss of innocent lives.”
The proposal was amended by Supervisors in order to specify that officers could use robots only after using alternative force. The other time officers would be allowed to use robots would be for de-escalation tactics or concluding that they would not be able to subdue the suspect through those alternative means.
The authorization to use robots as a deadly force option would belong to only a limited number of high-ranking officers. The department says that currently, the San Francisco police have a dozen functioning ground robots used to assess bombs or provide eyes in low visibility situations. But police officers said that they were acquired between 2010 and 2017, and not once have they been used to deliver an explosive device.
But after a new California law went into effect this year, explicit authorization was required, as police and sheriff’s departments were asked to inventory military-grade equipment and seek approval for their use. San Francisco City Attorney David Chiu authored the state law last year, while he was an assembly member.
According to the legislation, the aim is to give the public a forum and voice in the acquisition and use of military-grade weapons that have a negative effect on communities. In order to help local law enforcement, a federal program has long dispensed grenade launchers, bayonets, armored vehicles, camouflage uniforms, and other surplus military equipment. No robots were obtained from military surplus, the San Francisco police said, but some were purchased with federal grant money.
The recent debate was mostly about members on both sides accusing the other of reckless fear mongering, and it lasted more than two hours. “I think there are larger questions raised when progressives and progressive policies start looking to the public like they are anti-police,” said Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, who voted in favor of the policy authorization.
“I think that is bad for progressives. I think it’s bad for this Board of Supervisors. I think it’s bad for Democrats nationally,” he added. One who voted against the proposal, Board President Shamann Walton, pushed back, saying it made him not anti-police, but “pro people of color.” “We continuously are being asked to do things in the name of increasing weaponry and opportunities for negative interaction between the police department and people of color. This is just one of those things,” he said.
A letter was sent to the board by the San Francisco Public Defender’s office, that said that granting police “the ability to kill community members remotely” goes against the city’s progressive values. The board was asked by the office to reinstate language barring police from using robots against any person in an act of force.