San Francisco Votes to Give Cop Robots Explosives—and Permission to Kill

Initially, the policy stated that robots could not be used as “use of Force against any person,” but the cops requested that be changed.

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A police officer wearing full clear is seen with a remote control. A bomb disposal robot moves in front of them.
A Hong Kong police officer controls a bomb disposal robot in a counter-terrorism exercise in 2020.
Photo: Anthony Wallace / AFP (Getty Images)

In the near future, police in San Francisco may be able to deploy robots armed with explosives and instruct them to kill a human being.

On Tuesday, San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors voted 8-3 to approve a policy that would give the city’s police department permission to use remotely piloted robots to use lethal force in certain situations, specifically “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 policy isn’t a done deal yet, though. It must pass a second vote at a Board of Supervisors meeting next week and be approved by San Francisco’s mayor before it becomes law.

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Although police have argued that the killer robots will only be used in extreme situations when no other options are available, critics say the use of the robots is militaristic and will engender distrust. Initially, the policy stated that robots could not be used as “Use of Force against any person,” according to the outlet Mission Local. However, it was changed to allow for the use of deadly force at the request for the San Francisco Police Department. The department currently uses its fleet of more than one dozen robots for scouting, bomb disposal, and rescue operations, according to the Washington Post.

Civil rights lawyers were aghast at the policy, which some say gives police the power to kill people without due process of law. Tifanei Moyer, a senior attorney at Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, told Mission Local that policies like this were not normal.

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“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,” Moyer said. She added: “No legal professional or ordinary resident should carry on as if it is normal.”

The police, on the other hand, argue that allowing robots to use lethal force could be useful in some situations. In an interview with the Post, former Los Angeles Police Department lieutenant Adam Bercovici referenced an incident in Dallas in 2016, where officers sent in a robot with a bomb to strike down a sniper who had killed five police officers. The Dallas incident was the first time American police officers used a robot to kill someone, according to Bercovici.

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“If I was in charge, and I had that capability, it wouldn’t be the first on my menu,” Bercovici said in reference to the situation in Dallas. “But it would be an option if things were really bad.”