By J.D. Morris
Source San Francisco Chronicle
San Francisco police will be allowed to use robots to kill people in limited emergency situations under a controversial new policy approved by city supervisors on Tuesday.
Police leaders said they want the ability to deploy robots with lethal force during extremely rare cases against violent suspects such as mass shooters or suicide bombers. But critics, including a minority of the board, strongly objected to the policy over concerns that it could be abused and allow police to kill people too easily.
Following an impassioned debate, supervisors approved the policy in an 8-3 vote. They adopted an amendment that requires one of two high-ranking SFPD leaders to authorize any actual use of a deadly robot.
"There could be an extraordinary circumstance where, in a virtually unimaginable emergency, they might want to deploy lethal force to render, in some horrific situation, somebody from being able to cause further harm," Supervisor Aaron Peskin said to his colleagues, describing the police's justification for wanting to kill someone with a robot.
The Police Department's tactics for deploying certain military-grade weapons were reviewed because of state Assembly Bill 481, a 2021 law that mandates law enforcement agencies get approval from their governing bodies on the use of their equipment and weaponry. That law also gives those bodies — in this case, the Board of Supervisors — the ability to accept or reject how the equipment is used.
The issue is part of a larger Bay Area debate about how to balance police powers to fight crime with modern technology while protecting the public's civil liberties. In September, San Francisco supervisors voted 7-4 to let police temporarily monitor live surveillance feeds in some cases, despite strong objections from critics concerned about privacy rights. And Oakland police in October backed off a plan to seek the City Council's permission to use lethal armed robots.
"Given what we've seen with school shootings and terrorism and the realities of the 21st century, I think we absolutely should have the most advanced technology to deal with those kinds of threats, and this is what that is," Supervisor Rafael Mandelman said in an interview before the board voted on the policy.
Though San Francisco's police robots aren't new, what's new is how they could be used. The department acquired 17 robots — 12 of which are functioning — between 2010 and 2017, according to SFPD spokesperson Robert Rueca.
All of those robots are capable of "addressing criminal apprehensions, critical incidents, exigent circumstances, executing a warrant for suspicious device assessments," and more, he added. But none of them have been equipped to deploy lethal force, Rueca said.
That could change because of the new policy.
While the department said it has no plans to outfit robots with a gun, the robots in its arsenal could be equipped with explosive charges to breach structures containing violent suspects or used to contact or incapacitate violent suspects "who pose a risk of loss of life to law enforcement," Rueca said.
Some robots currently in the department's arsenal, like the Remotec F5A, can also climb stairs, lift over 85 pounds, overcome curbs, probe any hazmat situations, and self-right when they're flipped over.
The first known example of U.S. law enforcement using a robot with lethal force occurred in 2016, when Dallas police deployed a robot armed with an explosive device to kill someone who had fatally shot five officers.
SFPD Assistant Chief David Lazar told supervisors that his department could use robots to kill suspects in another kind of scenario: a mass shooting like the one that occurred on the Las Vegas Strip in October 2017. In that tragedy, a gunman inside a hotel tower opened fire on a music festival outside, killing 60 people and injuring hundreds more before taking his own life.
Should something similar happen in San Francisco, Lazar said, police want to have "an extra tool to save the lives of officers and save the lives of (other) people."
But several supervisors remained deeply skeptical that police need the extraordinary ability to kill someone with a robot. Supervisors Dean Preston, Hillary Ronen and Shamann Walton voted against the policy.
"This is a local police force here to protect us. This is not the U.S. military that we are arming," Preston said at the board meeting. "There is serious potential for misuse and abuse of this military-grade technology, and zero showing of necessity."
Ronen unsuccessfully sought to amend the policy to require police to exhaust non-lethal options before using a robot with deadly force. Peskin later proposed a successful and less restrictive amendment that lets police use a robot to kill someone if they have tried other de-escalation tactics or concluded that they would not be able to subdue the threat with alternative options.
"This is a big deal," Ronen said. "This is opening up a Pandora's box that could change our society in a significant way."
Deputy Public Defender Brian Cox also opposed the policy, writing in a letter to supervisors on Monday that the Police Department's justification for wanting to use robots with lethal force was "predicated on fear mongering."
"Tools beg to be used. If the SFPD is empowered to deploy a tool, the reason to use it — no matter how dehumanizing — will emerge," Cox wrote. "The Board should stand against this sweeping, unnecessary expansion of police power and reject SFPD's request to deploy killer robots."
Mandelman said he thought some of the policy's staunchest critics were not honestly engaging with the issues at hand.
"It starts feeling like they're just anti-police," he said at the board meeting. "That's not where I am. It's not where most of my constituents are."
AB481, the law that prompted San Francisco police to submit a policy for the use of military-grade equipment, was authored by former Assembly Member David Chiu, who is now the city attorney.
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