San Francisco legislators this week changed course on their so-called “killer robots” policy – and banned the police department’s use of robots equipped with explosives. For now.
On Tuesday, the city’s Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to explicitly prohibit lethal force by police robots following a massive public backlash and media attention over the proposal. Under a previously approved policy, police robots under human control could have used explosives to kill suspects. The droids were not allowed to use guns.
The board had approved this approach in an 8-3 vote on November 29. It would have allowed the cops to use robots “as a deadly force option when risk of loss of life to members of the public or officers is imminent and outweighs any other force option available to SFPD.”
We just stopped the use of killer robots robots in SF. Complete reversal from last week. Common sense prevailed.
— Hillary Ronen (@HillaryRonen) December 6, 2022
However, the supervisors have now sent the deadly robot provision back to the city’s Rules Committee for further debate. This panel may decide to revisit the policy. If the committee does not advance the proposal, and lets the matter drop, a total ban on lethal police robots will stand. If the committee does revise the rules, the board will get to vote on it again. So far, there seems little appetite to allow the cops to use exploding bots.
“This fight isn’t over, but we are grateful that the board explicitly banned police robots with deadly force,” San Francisco Supervisor Dean Preston said in a statement following Tuesday’s decision to send the policy back to the drawing board.
Preston was one of the three elected officials who voted against the killer robot policy last month. “I am calling on my colleagues to take heed of the powerful backlash and make sure this harmful policy is never approved — not today, not tomorrow, not ever,” he said.
This is about neutralizing a threat by equipping a robot with a lethal option as a last case scenario
In a statement to The Register, SFPD Chief William Scott argued a situation so dire may arise at some point to warrant the use of lethal ‘droids. “Part of our job is to prepare for the unthinkable – and to not prepare for the unthinkable would be irresponsible,” he said. “We cannot be limited in how we are able to respond if and when the worst-case scenario incident occurs in San Francisco.
“This story has been become distorted and the narrative being driven is a distraction from the real issue, which is having the tools necessary to prevent loss of innocent lives in an active shooter or mass casualty incident.
“We want to use our robots to save lives – not take them. To be sure, this is about neutralizing a threat by equipping a robot with a lethal option as a last case scenario, not sending an officer in on a suicide mission.”
The police department owns 17 robots, all of which it purchased before January 2022. Since then, SFPD has “not faced a situation where the delivery of lethal force was necessary,” Officer Robert Rueca said in an earlier email to The Register.
Welcome to the future
This type of situation did happen in Dallas, where a July 2016 mass-shooting incident left five police officers dead and another 11 people wounded. After cornering the suspect in a local building, police strapped an explosive charge onto a bomb-disposal robot, which detonated near the suspect, killing him.
San Francisco’s earlier stance on killer robots sparked protests outside of City Hall on Monday. Also on Monday, more than 40 community organizations including the ACLU and EFF signed a letter urging the supervisors to scrap the policy.
After the board changed course on Tuesday, EFF policy analyst Matthew Guariglia said the netizen rights’ group was “very pleased” with the killer robot ban. “This is a big step forward for a style of common sense governance where we know that security theater does not actually make San Francisco safer,” he told The Register.
“Next, we will have to see when and if the rules committee takes up the question of police robots,” he added. “It is my most sincere hope that after careful consideration and a period of public comment, the rules committee decides that it should not overturn the current policy and that deadly force by police robots should remain banned in San Francisco.” ®