San Francisco Reverses Vote to Let Police Use Killer Robots After Fierce Backlash

More than 100 people protested a policy allowing robots to use lethal force at San Francisco City Hall. Dozens of activist organizations opposed it, too.

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A police officer with a remote control is shown in front of a large robot.
A police officer carries out a demonstration with a bomb disposal robot.
Photo: Andreas Rentz (Getty Images)

In a hasty retreat, San Francisco lawmakers have reversed a vote allowing local police to use remote-controlled robots equipped with lethal explosives in extreme situations. The move comes after a wave of backlash from the community and activist organizations.

San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors voted 8-3 Tuesday on a revised version of the policy, which now prohibits police from using robots to kill people. Tuesday’s vote was a surprise turn of events after the board approved the policy last week, including a clause allowing for the lethal bots. As reported by the San Francisco Chronicle, the board rarely changes its mind on second round votes, which are typically seen as formalities. However, since the first vote on Nov. 29, the policy has received a wide range of criticism both locally and nationally. Lawmakers will debate the issue for another week before voting on yet another version of the policy next week.

On Monday, more than 100 people gathered to protest the killer robot policy at City Hall, according to board supervisor Dean Preston, one of the lawmakers who led the effort to reject the policy. The same day, 44 local organizations, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the ACLU of Northern California, and the San Francisco Public Defender, sent a letter voicing their opposition to the policy to San Francisco Mayor London Breed and the Board of Supervisors.

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“The people of San Francisco have spoken loud and clear: There is no place for killer police robots in our city,” Preston said in a statement after the vote. “There have been more killings at the hands of police than any other year on record nationwide. We should be working on ways to decrease the use of force by local law enforcement, not giving them new tools to kill people.”

According to the Chronicle, the original policy allowing police to use killer robots has now been kicked back to the Board’s rules committee, which may choose to revise it or scrap it entirely. A final vote on the city’s robot policy is expected next week.

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The San Francisco Police Department had advocated for the option to use killer robots “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.” Only the chief of police, the assistant chief of operations, and the deputy chief of special operations would be able approve the use of robots as a deadly force option.

In recent years, police officers have started to consider that using robots as an option of deadly force could be useful in certain situations. Advocates in favor of the policy point to an incident in 2016, when Dallas police sent in a robot with a bomb to take down a sniper who had killed five police officers. San Francisco’s police department states that it doesn’t have plans to arm the robots in its fleet with firearms. Instead, the police envision giving the robot explosives “to breach a structure containing a violent or armed subject.”

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Opponents of the policy, meanwhile, argued that giving the police permission to use robots to kill would deprive people of due process of law. Others said the policy could be abused and allow police officers to kill people with ease.

“The use of robots in potentially deadly force situations is a last resort option. We live in a time when unthinkable mass violence is becoming more commonplace,” San Francisco Police Chief William Scott said in a statement on Dec. 1. “We need the option to be able to save lives in the event we have that type of tragedy in our city.”

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The robots are currently used to dispose of bombs, deal with hazardous materials, or as tools in other incidents when police have to maintain a safe distance from the scene.