San Francisco, CA

San Francisco approves police to use lethal force with robots

Robert J Hansen

Public not permitted to comment during meeting
Photo bySebastien Cote via Getty

Robert J Hansen / Newsbreak, Sacramento 

(Sacramento, Calif.) The San Francisco Board of Supervisors approved the police department’s ability to use potentially lethal force using remote-controlled robots on Tuesday.

The 8-3 vote came after an hours-long debate and an amendment specifying that officers could use robots only after using alternative force or de-escalation tactics or were unable to subdue the suspect through alternative means.

Supervisor Dean Preston told the Vanguard this week that he doesn’t think most people in San Francisco support this policy and believed if placed on the ballot, it would go down overwhelmingly, just as an initiative for unrestrictive taser use went down in 2018, 62 percent to 38.

“I’m getting tons of communications of people who are against what the board did,” Preston said.

Public comment on the police equipment policy was not permitted and speakers were specifically warned that they wouldn't be allowed to talk about the policy if they called in.

Board President Shamann Walton questions whether giving police this authority will make San Franciscans safer.

"I don't see how a robot being armed with a weapon would save lives," Shamann said. "The last thing I want is a robot responding to a mass shooting at my children's school or my grandchildren's school."

The Supervisors in support of the policy claim it’s necessary to keep police officers and the city safe.

"These are the last-resort measures used after all other measures, to save lives," Supervisor Catherine Stefani said. "I will be voting in support of this measure today, in our continued effort to keep the city safe."

Stefani acknowledged that the city never has had to use this kind of weaponry but said it is necessary because police are “increasingly outgunned.”

"The militarization of our society exploded when assault rifles for citizens were allowed,” Stafani said. "Our police increasingly find themselves outgunned."

The last time an SF police officer was killed by gunfire was Officer Bryan Dennis Tuvera on December 23, 2006.

A new state law, AB 481, requires police to seek approval from their appropriate government body and is intended to allow the public a forum and voice in the acquisition and use of military-grade weapons that historically have harmed communities, according to the legislation.

Kat Scott, a Bay Area roboticist, wrote a letter protesting the draft policy to the Board of Supervisors.

"I have reviewed the robots currently in SFPD's possession; they were not designed for lethal force. As such, any novel armaments attached to these robots will be, at best, jury-rigged, and pose a danger to both SFPD and the citizens of San Francisco. The current policy permits the use of technology that lacks sufficient regulation and could create dangerous legal precedents. More insidiously, the policy as it stands will create a financial incentive to create weaponized robots for domestic use against American citizens at a time when no meaningful laws exist to regulate their use," Scott’s letter said.

Supervisor Connie Chan, a member of the committee that sent the proposal to the full board, was asked why the use of force by robots was needed but could not be reached for comment.

Chan told the Associated Press that she understood concerns over the use of force but said that according to state law she is “required to approve the use of these types of equipment.”

Other equipment policy concerns were raised by the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) which asked that all of the SFPD's assault rifles be included in the policy. 

Currently, 375 rifles are being omitted because Chief Bill Scott defines them as "standard-issue service weapons." 

Their omission could mean less oversight over how the weapons are used, according to the AFSC.

SF police have 12 fully functional robots at their disposal, according to SFPD spokesperson Robert Rueca.

Rueca said the robots have never been used to attack anyone. 

“The robots are remote-controlled and are typically used to investigate and defuse potential bombs or to surveil areas too awkward or dangerous for officers to access,” Rueca said.

Throughout the U.S. there have been very few situations where lethal force was used with a robot. Once was in 2016 when Dallas police strapped plastic explosives to a robot to blow up a sharpshooter who had killed five police officers. 

One of the SFPD’s robots, the Remotec F5A, is the same model as the one used by the Dallas police.

"It is ridiculous to give the police killer robots," an anonymous caller said before he was swiftly cut off from the meeting.

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Robert J Hansen is an investigative journalist and economist. Focused on holding elected officials, police and the courts accountable to the people throughout the greater Sacramento area.

Sacramento County, CA

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